By a purely political calculus, the online petition launched this week to outlaw children’s access to automatic weapons has limited prospects. Efforts to rein in the use of automatic weapons by children already failed in two state legislatures last year.
But it matters, some experts and activists say, because of the people behind the petition and their message.
Sponsoring the petition is the family of Charlie Vacca, the instructor killed one year ago by a 9-year-old New Jersey girl in pink shorts when she lost control of an Uzi rifle at a popular Arizona gun range. And the message is no broadside against Americans’ Second Amendment rights, but what the family calls a "common sense" appeal to gun owners and non-gun owners alike.
“Laws say that children can’t drink, can’t drive, can’t vote. But they can shoot fully automatic assault weapons. That hasn’t changed,” Mr. Vacca’s oldest daughter, Elizabeth, says on the petition.
At a time when gun-control laws of any kind are virtually impossible to get through Congress, the petition hints at a more nuanced picture of what America’s gun owners want. Though the National Rifle Association (NRA) has had remarkable success in opposing all forms of gun control, polls suggest that a majority of gun owners are open to a variety of gun laws.
For example, 84 percent of gun owners support background checks for all gun sales, according to a John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health survey this year. Similarly, an Economist/YouGov poll this year found that 60 percent of gun owners back a five-day waiting period for gun purchases.
Vacca’s shooting at the Last Stop gun range outside Las Vegas last year sparked a heated debate across the United States about how young is too young when it comes to shooting automatic weapons. The new petition is about trying to push that debate forward.
“Children shouldn’t be firing automatic weapons. It’s just common sense,” Marc Lamber, the Vacca family’s attorney, told The New York Times.
That quest has proven difficult in a country where gun instruction has historically tended to start early, and where the NRA has repeatedly proven its ability to mobilize pro-gun voters. Moreover, despite the high profile incident last year, shooting ranges have seen relatively few accidents involving children. An investigation into the Last Stop gun range found only minor safety infractions, none of which had to do with instruction.
So-called gun tourism continues to grow, epitomized by the opening of Machine Gun America, an Orlando, Fla., theme park that lets children age 13 and older fire automatic weapons.
Twenty-seven states, plus the District of Columbia, had some form of age restrictions for gun use before last year’s tragedy. Two states, Louisiana and Arizona, saw age-limit bills for automatic weapons introduced after the shooting. Both failed.
But the Vacca family’s petition puts pressure on gun owners, gun control groups say. The shooting’s deeper impact came from a sense of compounded tragedy: One set of kids lost a father, and one girl is faced with the guilt of the accident.
“You are only 9 years old. We think about you. We are worried about you,” one of Vacca’s children, Tylor, said in a videotaped message to the girl last year. “We pray for you, and we wish you peace. Our dad would want the same thing.”
Now, opponents of the petition will have to explain why the right of a 9-year-old to shoot an automatic weapon is so important.
“My read on pro-gun activists right now is they are facing tremendous cultural pressure, and being asked tough questions that they weren’t five years ago about … how extreme the pro-gun movement has gotten,” says Ladd Everitt, a spokesman for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence in Washington.
Among those who spoke out after last year’s accident in Arizona was MSNBC host Joe Scarborough, a gun-rights advocate who moderated his stance after the elementary school shootings in Newtown, Conn., in 2012.
“A man is dead, and they’ve ruined a little girl's life,” he said after the accident. “I say this as a father of an 11-year-old girl. Who would put an Uzi in the hands of a 9-year-old girl? What ... right is advanced by that?”
The accident highlighted the split between many gun owners and the hardcore gun community, says Adam Winkler, a constitutional law professor at the University of California at Los Angeles and author of “Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America.”
The gun lobby has the “political upper hand, and while I think most gun owners believe they should be responsible … the gun community really fights hard against laws requiring them to be responsible with guns,” he says.
The support for some limited gun-control measures is broad, analysts suggest.
“Despite legislative failures by gun-control groups in recent years, we do know that the majority of the public, sometimes large majorities, are supportive of a very wide range of measures to limit access or require more training or restrict certain kinds of guns,” says Tom Smith, the director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Society at the University of Chicago. “Very few Americans believe the Second Amendment means that anyone under any conditions can have any kind of weapon.”