Parents and gun culture under fire as fury grows over Uzi girl
The accidental shooting of a firing-range instructor by a nine-year-old girl with an Uzi has intensified a debate over youngsters and guns, with many Americans wondering what sort of parents would let a child handle a submachine gun.
Charles Vacca (39) was next to the girl on Monday at the Last Stop range in Arizona when she squeezed the trigger. The recoil wrenched the Uzi upward, and Vacca was shot in the head.
Prosecutors have said they will not file charges in the case.
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 were needed.
"We have better safety standards for who gets to ride a rollercoaster," Hills said.
Referring to the girl's parents, he said: "I just don't see any reason in the world why you would allow a nine-year-old to put her hands on an Uzi."
Sam Scarmardo, who operates the outdoor range, said 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 does not show the instructor actually being shot.
"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 US army veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Jace Zack, chief deputy for the Mohave County Attorney's Office, said the instructor was probably the most negligent person involved for having allowed the child to hold the gun without enough training.
"The parents aren't culpable," Zack said. "They trusted the instructor to know what he was doing, and the girl could not possibly have comprehended the potential dangers."
In 2008, an eight-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.
Gun experts said that what types of firearms a child can handle depend on the strength and experience of the child - though the notion of giving a nine-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 legislative director of the Washington State Rifle and Pistol Association.
Dave Workman, 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 was helping them hold it.
Lindsey Zwicker of the San Francisco-based Law Centre 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.
Scarmardo said his policy of allowing children eight and older to fire guns under adult supervision and the watchful eye of an instructor is standard practice in the industry.
Arizona has a strong pro-gun culture, and the Scottsdale Gun Club in recent years has allowed children and families to pose with Santa Claus while holding machine guns.
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.
"We never even issued a Band-Aid," Scarmardo said.