PHOENIX — The accidental shooting death of a firing-range instructor by a 9-year-old girl with an Uzi has set off a powerful debate over youngsters and guns, with many people wondering what sort of parents would let a child handle a submachine gun.
Instructor Charles Vacca, 39, was standing next to the girl Monday at the Last Stop range in White Hills, Arizona, about 60 miles south of Las Vegas, when she squeezed the trigger. The recoil wrenched the Uzi upward, and Vacca was shot in the head.
Prosecutors say they will not file charges in the case.
Gerry Hills, founder of Arizonans for Gun Safety, a group seeking to reduce gun violence, said that it was reckless to let the girl handle such a powerful weapon and that tighter regulations regarding children and guns are needed.
“We have better safety standards for who gets to ride a roller coaster at an amusement park,” Hills said. Referring to the girl’s parents, Hills said: “I just don’t see any reason in the world why you would allow a 9-year-old to put her hands on an Uzi.”
The identities of the girl and her family have not been released.
Sam Scarmardo, who operates the outdoor range in the desert, said Wednesday that the parents had signed waivers saying they understood the rules and were standing nearby, video-recording their daughter, when the accident happened.
Investigators released 27 seconds of the footage showing the girl from behind as she fires at a black-silhouette target. The footage, which does not show the instructor actually being shot, helped feed the furor on social media and beyond.
“I have regret we let this child shoot, and I have regret that Charlie was killed in the incident,” Scarmardo said. He said he doesn’t know what went wrong, pointing out that Vacca was an Army veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Jace Zack, chief deputy for the Mohave County Attorney’s Office, said the instructor was probably the most criminally negligent person involved in the accident for having allowed the child to hold the gun without enough training.
“The parents aren’t culpable,” Zack said. “They trusted the instructor to know what he was doing, and the girl could not possibly have comprehended the potential dangers involved.”
In 2008, an 8-year-old boy died after accidentally shooting himself in the head with an Uzi at a gun expo near Springfield, Massachusetts. Christopher Bizilj was firing at pumpkins when the gun kicked back. A former Massachusetts police chief whose company co-sponsored the gun show was later acquitted of involuntary manslaughter.
Two gun experts said Wednesday that what types of firearms a child can handle depend largely on the strength and experience of the child — though the notion of giving a 9-year-old a fully automatic Uzi made some queasy.
“So much of it depends on the maturity of the child and the experience of the range officer,” said Joe Waldron, a shooting instructor and legislative director of the Washington State Rifle and Pistol Association.
Dave Workman, senior editor at thegunmag.com and a spokesman for the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms, said it can be safe to let children shoot an automatic weapon if a properly trained adult is helping them hold it.
After viewing the video of the Arizona shooting, Workman said Vacca appeared to have tried to help the girl maintain control by placing his left hand under the weapon. But automatic weapons tend to recoil upward, he noted.
“If it was the first time she’d ever handled a full-auto firearm, it’s a big surprise when that gun continues to go off,” said Workman, a firearms instructor for 30 years. “I’ve even seen adults stunned by it.”
Lindsey Zwicker of the San Francisco-based Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence said that after the 2008 tragedy in Massachusetts, Connecticut adopted a law banning anyone under 16 from handling machine guns at shooting ranges.
“This is an action states can do to prevent something like this from happening again,” she said.
Scarmardo said his policy of allowing children 8 and older to fire guns under adult supervision and the watchful eye of an instructor is standard practice in the industry. The range’s policies are under review, he said.
Arizona has long had a strong pro-gun culture, including weapon ranges that promote events for children and families. Some of these ranges offer people the thrill of firing weapons such as the Israeli-made Uzi that are heavily restricted and difficult for members of the public to obtain.
The Scottsdale Gun Club in recent years has allowed children and families to pose with Santa Claus while holding machine guns and other weapons from the club. Children as young as 10 are allowed to hunt big game such as elk and deer in Arizona, provided they have completed a hunter safety course.
Scarmardo, who has been operating the gun range for more than a year and has run another for 14 years, said he hasn’t had a safety problem before at his ranges.
“We never even issued a Band-Aid,” Scarmardo said.