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Updated: Wed, 27 Aug 2014 22:43:11 GMT | By The Associated Press, cbc.ca

Arizona shooting range reviews policy after 9-year-old kills gun instructor



A man closes off an entrance to the Last Stop outdoor shooting range Wednesday, Aug. 27, 2014, in White Hills, Ariz. Gun range instructor Charles Vacca was accidentally killed Monday, Aug. 25, 2014 at the range by a 9-year-old with an Uzi submachine gun. John Locher/Associated Press

A man closes off an entrance to the Last Stop outdoor shooting range Wednesday, Aug. 27, 2014, in White Hills, Ariz. Gun range instructor Charles Vacca was accidentally killed Monday, Aug. 25, 2014 at the range by a 9-year-old with an Uzi submachine gun. John Locher/Associated Press

The accidental shooting death of a gun-range instructor by a nine-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 100 kilometres 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.

The identities of the girl and her family have not been released.

"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."

Sam Scarmardo, who operates the shooting range, said Wednesday that the girl's parents had signed waivers saying they understood the rules and were standing nearby, video-recording their daughter, when the accident happened.

In an interview with CBC Radio's As It Happens, Scarmardo didn't give his opinion on whether young children should be firing automatic weapons.

"Where would you make the break point? Where would you make the determination if the children want to come out here and have a birthday party?" he asked.

"We're very strict on all our rules and regulations. We don’t tolerate even minor violations of our rules and regulations."

'Never supposed to leave 6 o'clock'

Those rules and regulations include the way instructors teach their students how to shoot.

"Just picture centre of the clock is the shooter, downrange is 12 o'clock. Our instructors are never supposed to leave 6 o’clock," Scarmardo said, in order to be behind the shooter and control the position and operation of the weapon at all times.

Investigators released 27 seconds of the footage showing the girl from behind as she fires at a black silhouette target. Vacca can be seen standing next to the girl, or at the 9 o'clock position.

The footage, which does not show the instructor actually being shot, helped feed the furor on social media and beyond.

"I wasn’t there at the time, I can’t point a finger at anybody. But unfortunately, an industrial accident is what's happened here," Scarmardo said. He said he doesn't know what went wrong, pointing out that Vacca was an army veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan.

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've never even handed out a Band-Aid."

In 2008, an eight-year-old boy died after accidentally shooting himself in the head with an Uzi at a gun expo near Springfield, Mass. 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 who serves as 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.

Arizona range's policies under review

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.

As for the nine-year-old girl, Scarmardo said he's praying for her to be OK.

"It's probably something she’ll have to live with the rest of her life. We’re really saddened for her as much as we are for Charlie’s family."

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