Nine year-old shoots instructor with Uzi: Did the gun fit?

A 9-year-old girl unintentionally shot her gun-range instructor with an Uzi. Beyond the bigger gun debate in America, this incident might beg the most basic safety question – did the gun fit?

Screenshot from YouTube
A still image from the cell phone video recorded by the parents of a 9-year-old girl who mistakenly shot an instructor after an Uzi recoiled and hit the ground.

The social recoil after a 9-year-old girl fatally shot her instructor while learning how to use an Uzi may convince some parents to set their sights on the importance of getting better informed on family gun instruction. Perhaps the gun industry might want to consider displaying age-appropriate safety guidelines as clearly at gun ranges as height requirements for rides are shown at theme parks.

The Associated Press reports that Arizona gun range instructor Charles Vacca, 39, was showing a 9-year-old girl how to fire the Uzi, an automatic weapon, at the Last Stop gun range in White Hills, Ariz. 

A cellphone video, which cuts off before images of the actual shooting, shows the girl alongside the instructor. Reports say she was being taught how to fire the weapon in single-shot mode, and then the instructor switched the weapon to full-automatic. She pulled the trigger and lost control of the weapon.

The shooting happened when the Uzi recoiled in the girl’s hands, sending “the weapon over her head,” the Mohave County Sheriff’s Officer told The LA Times. The video of the shooting was released by the Sheriff's Office.

I learned today that it is not entirely uncommon for kids younger than 9 years old to be allowed on shooting ranges (in fact, at the Last Stop range, the age limit was 8).

“We allow nine-year-olds to shoot on our range and explain to parents that they are completely responsible,” said Robert Marcus, owner of Bob’s Gun Shop in Norfolk, Va. in a phone interview. “It’s very common to have kids much younger than nine on the range here with parents.”

However, Mr. Marcus, who is also the president of the Virginia Firearms Dealer Association, adds, “We would never allow a child to have an Uzi on the range. That kind of automatic weapon is hard for an adult to control.”

“We don’t, have a written rule against using an automatic weapon with a child, but that’s because it falls under the Law of Common Sense,” Marcus said. “We simply would not allow it on our range.”

This makes me think of parents who take their child to an amusement park, and stand them up next to measuring sticks at the entrance of rides that denotes how tall the child must be to enter.

In general, gun ranges are not similarly equipped with instructive signs alerting parents to the fact that a child may not have big enough hands (or the right grip size) to hold a weapon tightly enough to maintain control, or be physically large enough to hold it steady when hit by a weapon’s recoil action, according to Marcus. 

He recommends parents check out the National Shooting Sports Foundation website for links to child firearm safety

In light of this event, perhaps the National Rifle Association (NRA) may want to issue posters to gun ranges that help educate parents and instructors on which weapons are safest for supervised instruction of minors as gauged by the child’s height, weight, and hand size.

In the absence of that kind of visual aid, parents who want to take their child to a gun range should also be responsible for getting educated on which weapons are best suited for use in instructing a child.

While I personally choose not to own a gun and, during the past 20 years of parenting, have banned even toy guns from our home, I respect the choices of parents who embrace well-educated, responsible, firearm instruction.

After reading about this deadly incident, I reached out via Facebook to parents who grew up in pro-gun households  (and who have taken their kids to the gun range for instruction) to get their thoughts on what happened in Arizona.

"I learned how to shoot at 7 years old. I was taught rifle, shotgun and handgun but no one let me hold anything myself to fire until I was strong enough and experienced enough to prove to all concerned that I could handle myself," author and firearms expert Amy Waters Yarsinske responded to my Facebook query in an email. "I will note that gun ranges are terrific for beginners to experienced individuals as long as the rules are followed and common sense is exercised,”

Christina Schweiss, who is a mom and works as senior subject matter expert at General Dynamics Information Technology and is also Adjunct Faculty at American Military University, in Norfolk, Va., wrote on Facebook: “I grew up in South Dakota, so I had guns in my hands from a VERY young age. My dad never let us shoot something we couldn't handle.”

Ms. Schweiss tells the story of when her ex-husband once allowed their son, age 10 at the time, to shoot a 9 mm handgun at a rural, homemade gun range.

“I spent 20 plus years in the Army and handled a 9 mm all the time. It has a twisting kick when it fires and ejects the shell case out the side,” Schweiss wrote on Facebook. “If a young child tried to fire it and didn't know to expect that twist or didn't have large enough hands to grip it tight enough, it could easily twist right out of his hands, hit the ground, go off (semi auto) and hurt or kill someone.”

After a heated discussion with her ex-husband, Schweiss says he agreed never again allowed their son use of that particular weapon during instruction and became better educated on which firearms are appropriate to a child’s size, height, and weight.

The unfortunate event with an Uzi in Arizona should similarly encourage parents and instructors to become better informed on the importance of knowing what weapon is literally a good fit for a minor training under adult supervision.

Perhaps the best investment a parent can make when choosing to teach a child to use a firearm is the 85-cent booklet available from the NRA, “Smart & Safe - Handling Your Firearm” which informs new gun owners about responsibility, safe gun handling. It also provides an overview of the various types of guns and their actions. 

The NRA website also offers a number of publications and links to parents on gun safety and instruction for children. 

Perhaps this is another time when parents need to remember “just because we can, doesn’t mean we should” do something with our child.

In the absence of a printed sign telling us what is safe for our kids, parents might consider taking the time to thoroughly review the Law of Common Sense.

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