TUCSON, Ariz. — The accidental death of an instructor at an Arizona shooting range, killed while teaching a 9-year-old girl to fire a fully automatic Uzi, has touched off a national debate on whether children should be given access to such weapons.
But among those who enjoy and teach the use of firearms, a different question has emerged: What’s the proper way to teach children about guns?
Whether a child should be shooting any sort of gun is a decision for each family to make, said Butch Jensen, an instructor for 10 years at Southeast Regional Park Shooting Range on the outskirts of Tucson. The key, he said, is training. A gun is a tool, and like any tool — be it a circular saw or a kitchen knife — requires proper instruction, he said.
“It was clear that she was a beginner, and you don’t start a beginner in that type of firearm,” said Jensen, who watched a widely circulated video of the fatal lesson. “If you want to learn how to run Indy cars, you don’t start at Indy.”
Charles Vacca, 39, of Lake Havasu City was shot Monday at the Bullets and Burgers outdoor range in White Hills, in northern Arizona, about 60 miles south of Las Vegas.
The video shows the 9-year-old girl, clad in pink shorts with a braid in her hair, lose control of the weapon shortly after Vacca, who stood to her left, showed her how to use it. The fatal shot is not shown. The names of the girl and her parents have not been released.
The Arizona Division of Occupational Safety and Health, the state’s workplace safety agency, is investigating. The Mohave County Sheriff’s Office has said it will not file charges.
The range where Jensen works is one of three owned and operated by Pima County Natural Resources, Parks and Recreation Department. The range does not rent firearms and does not allow full automatic fire.
There is no age requirement for shooting at the range, and children seem to visit it most weekends. Children under 16 must be closely supervised by a legal guardian or parent, though those adults need not be certified instructors, Jensen said.
There were no children present Thursday morning at the outdoor, desertlike facility, where marksmen fire toward a large dirt berm. Blake Carrington took aim at a paper target with the black and blue silhouette of a person. Brass bullet casings bounced back behind him. Above him was a sign: “Safety is no accident.”
Carrington, who serves in the Air Force, has taught his 10-year-old daughter to shoot a .22 rifle.
“I personally would never give my child a fully automatic weapon,” he said. “I feel terrible for that little girl having to live with that.”
Carrington said he was torn about whether gun access laws should be stricter for children. “That’s the thing about guns,” he said. “They will do exactly what the human tells them to do. Poor decision making is what gets us.”
Federal law prohibits children under 18 from possessing a firearm. However, there is no federal law preventing children’s access to guns.
Arizona is one of 21 states with no law restricting gun access to children under 18, as long as there is adult supervision, said Lindsey Zwicker, staff attorney with the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
Currently, 28 states and the District of Columbia have laws governing children’s access to firearms. Connecticut passed a law that prohibits children under 16 from handling a machine gun at a shooting range. The law was passed after an 8-year-old Connecticut boy died at a Massachusetts gun expo in 2008 after losing control of the Uzi he was firing.
“When things like this happen, we do draw our attention to the law,” Zwicker said. “People are talking and looking to see where there are weaknesses in the law, and there is discussion on what can be done to prevent this in the future.”
Standing near Carrington at the range Thursday was Tom, a gun enthusiast who worries the fatal accident will provide fodder to gun control activists.
“Anti-gun people will exploit it into mass hysteria about kids and guns,” said Tom, a 66-year-old attorney who didn’t want to give his full name out of concern it could affect his line of work.
Tom, who practiced with an M1 Garand Rifle, said he shoots for sport and to exercise his Second Amendment rights. “I don’t think you should keep kids away from firearms,” he said. “This shouldn’t keep people from taking their kids to the range.”
Still, Tom said he could not fathom why adults allowed the 9-year-old girl to shoot an Uzi. “I don’t know what they were thinking,” he said. “My personal opinion is someone under 15 years of age playing with a submachine weapon is not a good idea.”
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Across town at the Marksman Pistol Institute I, instructor and shift manager Sean Yeandle said he had never seen an Uzi shot at his range by anyone under 21. “I don’t see us or any of the Uzi-rated instructors ever letting anyone under the age of 18 use that,” he said.
Children have to be 10 or older and be under the supervision of a parent to shoot at the indoor range, Yeandle said.
At the range an instructor makes sure to stay behind the shooter for safety and to keep control of the gun. The gun tends to recoil and drive the shooter backward.
As for teaching a child to shoot an Uzi, he said, “the value doesn’t outweigh the risk.”
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