9-Year-Old Girl's Accidental Shooting of Her Instructor Exposes an Overlooked Gun Problem


The shocking death of a firing range instructor who was overseeing a 9-year-old shooting an Uzi seems to raise a simple enough question: Why was a 9-year-old shooting an Uzi? But the tragedy also highlights a less regulated and little-covered segment of gun use in America.

The shooting happened Monday in White Hills, Ariz., where Last Stop gun range instructor Charles Vacca was helping a 9-year-old girl (whose name has not been released) shoot an Uzi submachine gun. The weapon recoiled, and Vacca was shot in the head.

Vacca's death reignited the gun control debate, helped along by an ill-timed tweet from the NRA's @NRAWomen account promoting an article titled "7 Ways Children Can Have Fun at the Shooting Range." While the controversy has mostly centered on gun control, the safety of gun ranges remains relatively undiscussed, with sometimes tragic consequences.

Gun range rules: State laws can vary widely on the requirements to shoot at a gun range. It's much easier to shoot at the range than it is to buy or carry a gun, and for obvious reasons: You're in a controlled environment shooting at an inanimate target. A 9-year-old shooting on the range is accepted; a 9-year-old on the streets wielding a gun on the streets would be insane.

Often, as described in Politico Magazine earlier this month, the regulations boil down to showing an ID, filling out a liability waiver and declaring yourself mentally competent. The lack of screening can lead to problems — people occasionally come to ranges to commit suicide, since they can get quick access to a weapon.

While rare, there have been occasional examples of mentally ill individuals turning their weapons on others. Marie Moore, who had a history of mental illness, took her son to a Florida range in 2009 and shot him in the head before killing herself. ("I had to send my son to Heaven and myself to Hell," she wrote in a suicide note.) Raymond Peake, who was determined to overthrow the U.S. government, shot and killed a fellow range-goer in Pennsylvania in 2011. Jeffrey Lane Dudney of Florida held a gun range and store hostage in 2007 before turning the weapon on himself.

For kids? Prosecutors in Arizona aren't pressing charges in Vacca's death. "The parents aren't culpable," Jace Zack, chief deputy for the Mohave County Attorney's Office told the AP. "They trusted the instructor to know what he was doing, and the girl could not possibly have comprehended the potential dangers involved."

In a similar tragedy in 2008, an 8-year-old Massachusetts boy accidentally shot himself while firing an Uzi at a gun show. The show's organizer, who had provided the weapon, was acquitted of involuntary manslaughter. As Mother Jones explains, no punishment is the most common outcome when children shoot themselves or others. Of 72 such cases in 2013, only four ended with adults being held criminally liable.

Vacca's death was an accident, and accidents happen. But it's much easier for them to happen with lax gun range rules and children using weapons. Just how far hypothetical regulations should go can be argued, but Murphy's Law is no reason to avoid having that argument.