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Shooting by 9-year-old girl stirs debate over guns

By Jacques Billeaud and Gene Johnson

PHOENIX (AP) - 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.

Investigators said they do not plan to seek charges.

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.

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.


Johnson contributed to this report from Seattle.

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caldie August 27 2014 at 6:49 PM

Absolutely NOT...did the parents leave their brains at home or what?

Flag Reply +28 rate up
8 replies
james August 27 2014 at 10:50 PM

Wow, the NRA gun fetishists are already on this story explaining why it makes sense to teach a 9-year-old to shoot a gun.

They're so warped by their ideology they've stopped thinking clearly.

Flag Reply +27 rate up
9 replies
projcontrols August 27 2014 at 10:15 PM

The fatal outcome of putting a automatic machine gun in the hands of a child was predictable. We are dealing with complete idiots who will continue to exercise their "Constitutional rights" to shoot, own and carry guns - no matter who has to die in the process.

Flag Reply +27 rate up
10 replies
d1anaw August 27 2014 at 11:05 PM

There is one and only one reason to use one of these weapons. That is to kill another person. So someone is in essence, teaching a child to committ murder. You can try to gussy it up and manipulate it, but the bottom line is, that there is no other purpose for this weapon. So if you teach a child to use it, you are teaching them to kill. How special. Of course the NRA would love a nation of child aged killers.

Flag Reply +25 rate up
8 replies
espana66 August 27 2014 at 7:36 PM

why is a 9 year old learning to use a gun??? Let kids be kids and stop trying to make them grow up before their time. What is she going to say now "Sorry"?

Flag Reply +19 rate up
5 replies
kgm61m August 27 2014 at 8:33 PM

Anybody see the irony in the fact even children can use guns but none of us are allowed to see a real video of the damage a gun does. That would cross the line.

Flag Reply +18 rate up
3 replies
james August 27 2014 at 10:47 PM

Yes, the NRA nuts are already on this site explaining just why it's rational to teach a 9-year-old to handle a gun.

They're so twisted by their gun fetishism that they can't even think clearly.

Flag Reply +16 rate up
7 replies
mman383 August 27 2014 at 10:52 PM

Hey, don't you all know, it's a Constitutional, Praise the Lord right for any child to be able to shoot and carry guns! This is America! Halleluyah! It's SCARY how some parts of this country are!

Flag Reply +10 rate up
7 replies
sssprayfoam August 27 2014 at 10:34 PM

The parents will probably take her to get more lessons firing an uzi so this dont happen again

Flag Reply +8 rate up
4 replies
skyofblue17 August 27 2014 at 9:35 PM

I know that parents like for their children to experience and learn all kinds of things, but this is shocking to me. Perhaps the shooting range will at least change their rules so children are not practicing with machine guns at least.

Flag Reply +7 rate up
1 reply
deansview skyofblue17 August 28 2014 at 2:13 AM

In my view I see it as a very stupid Instructor to not be more careful knowing how this gun kicks back when fired, He was an Idiot and now he is dead!

Flag Reply +2 rate up
1 reply
Nick Tanguay deansview August 31 2014 at 5:05 PM

what about a parent who puts a killing machine in the hands of their child. Now that's pretty stupid!

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