The sight of a pre-teen girl hoisting a weapon and firing off a few rounds at a shooting range is not an uncommon one in the United States, where hundreds of thousands of children learn to shoot every year.
But the accidental killing of a gun instructor by a 9-year-old in Mohave County, near Las Vegas, on Monday has again re-ignited debate over gun safety and whether children should be allowed near weapons.
Charles Vacca, 39, was shot in the head as he stood beside the girl, who was learning to fire an Uzi submachine gun. In a video capturing the moments before Vacca’s death, the instructor is seen showing the girl how to stand while carrying the weapon. The girl, in pink shorts and a long braid down her back, steps back on her right foot to better position herself.
Vacca is heard saying, “Gimme one shot.” As the girl fires, his left hand cradles the weapon, his right on the small of her back. “Alright,” he says, congratulating her. The last words heard from the tutor are “full auto,” as he flicks the switch for the Uzi to become fully automatic. The recoil from the rapid firing causes the girl to lose control of the weapon, which then continues to fire, shooting Vacca and killing him.
“We really don’t know what happened,” said Sam Scarmardo, the operator of Bullets and Burgers, the commercial shooting range where the incident occurred. “Our guys are trained to basically hover over people when they’re shooting,” he is reported to have told CNN affiliate KLAS.
Asked how a 9-year-old could get her hands on such a weapon, Scarmardo told a reporter that kids as young as five can be instructed in .22 caliber rifles at his shooting range.
But that question of access also depends on the gun laws of each state. Some states like Arizona allow the use of fully automatic weapons on shooting ranges. Others, like New York, do not, said Paul Conforti, a certified pistol instructor.
“In New York we don’t have to worry about that,” he told Al Jazeera. Conforti, who teaches at Aim Small Firearms Instruction in Westchester, said the Uzi submachine gun the girl fired is something that even some adults find difficult to handle.
“I’m a retired police officer, I’ve shot fully automatic and usually as an adult you went through training to get the full feel of the machine before you let the gun totally open up,” he said. “You have to learn how the gun is going to respond to what you’re doing to it. The instructor didn’t seem to take the right precautions.”
Bullets and Burgers is a tourist attraction in the Las Vegas area that offers meals alongside the opportunity to shoot fully automatic weapons and be photographed with machine guns used in the movies Rambo and Terminator. Its website is full of positive reviews from customers praising their experiences. At least one person called it the best gun range in Las Vegas.
But other range operators questioned the safety standards that led to the accident.
Jim Ownsby, executive officer at the Globe-Miami Gun Club in Globe, Arizona, said his club has never had an accident like that, and it’s been operating since 1949.
“We have them [shooters] as young as seven,” he told Al Jazeera. “We really try to enforce safety here, we do what is called a closed range, nothing is loaded until you get to the bench to shoot. If you have a sidearm out here it has to be unloaded.”
The incident at Burgers and Bullets, he said, “might have been a little negligent.” The Uzi is “too big of a gun for a 9-year-old.”
More concerning, says Ownsby, will be the emotional impact of the shooting on the girl, who reportedly was visiting with her parents from the northeast. She has not been identified and no charges were reported to have been filed.
“It’s unbelievable that it did happen, a hell of a tragedy and trauma for the girl,” he said. “That’s going to impact on the rest of her life.”
“Our thoughts and prayers go out to the families of the victim and the young girl involved in this tragedy,” said Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America in a statement. “We also hope that this event will lead to a national discussion about children and guns.”
Within the discussion of children and guns lies the fact that across the country young children are learning how to use weapons every day. Youth organization 4-H has a shooting program that teaches shooting sports to more than 350,000 children every year. Most gun clubs have youth programs that allow kids as young as seven to begin learning about weapons and how to handle them. The NRA runs youth programs and its Eddie Eagle program on gun safety has been used in more than 26,000 schools.
Conforti, the gun instructor, said his children have been around guns since they were very little, and that tradition is ingrained in many American families.
“In my belief and the way I train my children, the sooner they understand the gravity of the device in their hands, the more intelligent decision they will make,” he said. “My kids are now 17 and 14 and are extremely avid shooters. They love to shoot.”