The accidental shooting death Monday of an Arizona firearms instructor showing a 9-year-old girl how to shoot an Uzi submachine gun reinforced a truth in the debate over kids shooting real guns: The responsibility of handling firearms can be far heavier than the gun itself.
The shooting was caught on video, released by the county sheriff's office, which shows how instructor Charlie Vacca instructed the girl on how to handle the gun, first adjusting her grip and stance. The girl, dressed in pink shorts, can be seen firing one round, after which Mr. Vacca adjusts her grip. Then several rounds go off, and the girl loses control of the weapon, which keeps firing as it lifts up and back. The video clip ends before showing Vacca being shot. Vacca died at a nearby hospital.
To some psychologists, Tuesday’s tragedy highlights the dangers and implications of allowing children straddling childhood and adolescence to handle weaponry.
“There’s two victims here, really,” says Marjorie Sanfilippo, an Eckerd College psychology professor who has studied the allure of firearms to children.
While children can’t buy guns, there are very few rules in the United States as to how young is too young to shoot. For one, the Consumer Product Safety Commission cannot, by law, make recommendations or issue warnings.
The appropriate age for gun instruction and use has become caught up in broader debates about safety and responsibility. Facing declining hunter populations, many states have begun to lower hunting ages to habitualize hunting at an earlier age.
Minnesota just lowered its hunting age to 10, although the state limits gun instruction classes to 11-year-olds and above.
According to psychotherapist Dominic Carone “logical thought is not well developed” in the 4 to 5 age range, a point at which some American children are first exposed to firearms education.
American firearms makers have in recent years developed small .22 caliber rifles for the youth market, but those makers have been hesitant to set a hard age requirement, Josh Sugarmann of the Violence Policy Center told NBC News last year. “There’s a recognition [by manufacturers] that the majority of the American public has concerns about putting guns in the hands of children,” he said.
Buoyed by statistics that show child gun accidents dwindling, many Americans suggest teaching kids about guns helps take away their mystery and allure, which ultimately helps to protect kids from gun accidents.
"There are a lot of accidents that happen because kids aren't properly trained to use guns," Douglasville, Ga., gun shop owner Latham Doxey, told ABC News earlier this year. "So it's either education or ignorance, is the way we look at it…. I would rather be the one to show our kids the proper way to use guns."
Mr. Latham holds shooting picnics for families where kids as young as age 4 shoot automatic rifles with the help of adults.
Asked to peg an appropriate age for children to learn how to handle weapons, Ms. Sanfilippo at Eckerd College hesitates before saying 16. “Obviously we let 16-year-olds drive even though they’re impulsive and make bad decisions, but I would say 16 would be the earliest to introduce guns to children,” she says.
Others take a harder line.
“In terms of safety, why would you want these kids around incredibly dangerous products?" David Hemenway, director of Harvard University's Injury Control Research Center, told NPR recently. "It's hard to imagine how this increases safety at all – let's play with a dangerous product."
The National Shooting Sports Foundation argues that gun education for children, combined with growing safety awareness on the part of parents, has led to a dramatic 74 percent drop in unintentional firearms-related fatalities involving kids younger than 14 in the last 20 years. Still, an average of 1,500 children a year die as a result of shootings, many of them by peers.
“To say, ‘I’ve educated my child about the dangers of guns’ is fine, but it’s also not fair to a child like the girl in this case: it’s putting an awful amount of responsibility on a child to make the right decisions,” says Sanfilippo. “That’s a scar she’ll bear for life.”
"This was a case of miscalculation and misplaced trust. Teaching children how to shoot isn’t the problem," writes M.L. Lourdes on Viral Global News. "A trained adult must always maintain control of the firearm and respect the dire consequences that can come from not doing so."