Uzi gun death accident exposes debate about children and guns

A deadly accident at an Arizona gun range, where a nine-year-old girl accidentally shot her instructor, providing a platform for debate about whether there should be new laws restricting how old a child should be to go to a shooting range and what kinds of guns they can handle.

A deadly accident prompts calls for new age laws, and rejections of the idea

Andrew Josequera, 11, prepares to shoot at a target at a gun club in Los Angeles. A deadly accident at an Arizona gun range this week, where a nine-year-old shot her instructor while firing an automatic firearm, has raised questions about children and gun ranges. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

The Bullets and Burgers shooting range in White Hills, Ariz., offers a playground of firearms for tourists and gun enthusiasts to try — handguns, machine guns, sniper rifles — the list is extensive and boasts the actual firearms used in the movies Terminator, Rambo II and Jumanji.

Las Vegas vacationers and others can buy the basic package starting at $199, which includes transportation to the property, a swing by the Hoover Dam, the chance to shoot different pistols and machine guns, and their "world famous" burger to eat afterwards.

On Aug. 25, Bullets and Burgers became famous for something else — a deadly accident that has raised questions about children at shooting ranges and the guns they are allowed to handle.

A nine-year-old girl on vacation with her parents accidentally killed the instructor supervising her, Charles Vacca, while shooting an Uzi submachine gun. The recoil of the powerful military-style weapon was apparently too much for the little girl and she was unable to keep it steady.

The minimum age at Bullets and Burgers is 8 and anyone under 18 must be with a parent, but as a state, Arizona has no law dictating how old someone must be to go to a shooting range or on what firearms they can use.
In this image made from a video, firing-range instructor Charles Vacca, left, shows a nine-year old girl how to use an Uzi. Vacca, 39, was hit in the head with a bullet when the gun recoiled and died in hospital. (Associated Press Photo/Mohave County Sheriff Department)

Connecticut appears to be the only state that has banned anyone under 16 from handling an automatic gun such as the Uzi. The law was imposed in reaction to an eight-year-old from that state who died after shooting himself with an Uzi at a gun expo in Massachusetts.

Lindsey Zwicker, an attorney at the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, said putting an Uzi in the hands of a nine-year-old "defies logic" and that more states should follow Connecticut's lead.

"Something like that could potentially prevent this from happening again," she said of the ban.

Twenty-eight states have laws related to children's access to guns, but they vary in their scope and effectiveness, Zwicker said, and they are primarily focused on guns in the home, not at shooting ranges. That should change, Zwicker said.

Accident prompts calls for tougher laws

"There aren't many laws to regulate firing ranges unfortunately," she said. "Shooting ranges are given a lot of leeway."

Craig Cox, who has been a shooting instructor for more than 40 years, rejects the idea that there should be restrictions on age. What happened at Bullets and Burgers was "tragic" but it need not prompt calls for more laws, he and others say.

"There are enough restrictions as it is for firearms and everything else," he said.

 Cox, who learned to shoot a gun when he was seven, runs his own teaching business in Mesa, Ariz., and said he lets children use a rifle starting at age eight and a handgun at 10. He said he wouldn't let a nine-year-old touch an Uzi but that each instructor makes a judgment call and that's the way it should be.

"You could have two nine-year-olds and one of them is as smart as a whip and the other is as dumb as a stump. You talk to them, you feel them out as to whether or not you should put something like that in their hands," said Cox.

Randy Farmer, owner of Free State Gun Range in Maryland, and Cox both expressed frustration that Monday's rare accident is giving anti-gun groups a platform to argue for more regulations.

"They want to leverage this tragedy into some effort to ban guns and to regulate gun ranges … and it's just not a practical way to do things," said Farmer. No matter the activity, whether it's driving or something else, people misbehave and accidents happen, he said. "Burdensome regulation will not fix it."

At his business, new shooters are only allowed to start off with a small .22-calibre firearm and must take a training course.

'Very few accidents' at ranges

Gun clubs and shooting ranges that properly train people are one thing, but what about the places like Bullets and Burgers that advertise to bachelor parties and those looking to act like a character in Rambo, where inexperienced and novice shooters can "let ‘em rip!" How safe are they?

"The records speak for themselves," said Farmer. Lots of people go to shooting ranges, of all types, and there are very few accidents, he said. "Do the math."
One of the firearms featured on the website of Bullets and Burgers, a gun range in Arizona that caters to tourists visiting Las Vegas. (Bullets and Burgers website)

Bullets and Burgers employs certified instructors, many of whom are former members of the military, and several reviews of the tour on TripAdvisor talk about the professional staff and their attention to safety.

"I would proffer to you that in one year there are billions of rounds fired at gun ranges. Billions. And now you want to talk about one errant round that unfortunately killed somebody and use that as a prod and sort of a ramrod to create more regulations," said Farmer.

Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, agrees that what happened on Monday is a rare occurrence — but that doesn't mean it shouldn't prompt legal changes, he said.

"It is a good idea to do what Connecticut has done," he said.

Webster said he understands parents who want to teach their children to hunt, how it's a culturally important tradition to pass along, and that many parents are prudent when it comes to safely securing firearms and instructing their children.

But some parents aren't as prudent as they should be and there's no harm in having restrictions on the age of shooters and on what kinds of guns they can fire, according to Webster.

"I don't think it's a huge inconvenience to make young people wait a while before a gun is put in their hands in some kind of public place, particularly with the guns as potentially powerful as an Uzi."


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