A 9-year-old girl in Arizona being taught to fire an Uzi machine gun lost control of the weapon and killed her shooting instructor. The Internet has a video.
This is the kind of horrible incident that invites overheated debate. Herewith four blunt points—framed as questions and intended to shed light before the ideologues go ballistic.
1. Wait, a 9-year-old can get her hands on an Uzi? Yes. In most places, it’s legal for children under adult supervision to fire guns. The operator of the Arizona range permitted kids as young as 8 to shoot. The little girl in this case was brought to the range by her parents. Instructor Charles Vacca can be seen on the video released by police eagerly explaining to the youngster how to hold and point the Uzi, a potent weapon originally made for the Israeli military. After the girl fired a single round in semiautomatic mode, Vacca switched the gun to fully automatic and urged her to let loose. A fully automatic weapon, referred to as a machine gun, spews rounds continuously as long as the trigger is depressed. The Uzi’s recoil apparently proved too much for the girl in Arizona, causing the barrel to drift up and to her left, where Vacca was standing close by.
2. Machine guns are legal? Yes and no. Civilians can’t walk into a gun store and buy a new fully automatic weapon. But in 1986, when the law was tightened, lots of older machine guns were grandfathered in, meaning it’s legal to possess them if they’re properly registered with the federal government. Selling or otherwise transferring an automatic weapon is subject to much stricter oversight than a standard firearm transaction. Still, with enough persistence, a clean record, and $15,000 or so (they’re expensive), it’s possible to acquire a late-model machine gun in most states. Firing ranges in Arizona, Nevada, and other gun-friendly places have made machine-gun tourism a lucrative business. I’ve fired fully automatic weapons at a place in Las Vegas. It was fun and a little scary, as I imagine driving a race car at high speed on a closed track would be.
3. So should a little kid be firing an Uzi or any other machine gun? No. Not even with adult supervision. It’s one thing for grandpa to show a physically competent adolescent how to pull the trigger on a .22, which has gentle recoil. In many American families, guns are a part of growing up, and learning to fire a rifle needn’t be any more dangerous than learning to drive a car within the speed limit. Both require careful supervision and a degree of a maturity. Both require risk-benefit analysis better performed by adults. It might be cute to see a 9-year-old driving the family sedan, but I wouldn’t want to be sitting in the passenger seat or standing nearby.
4. Does the Arizona episode mean we live in a whacko gun culture? Those saying yes are going to remind you of a 2008 case in which an 8-year-old Massachusetts boy—under adult supervision at a gun club—accidentally shot himself in the head with an Uzi and died. Those saying no, guns are as American as apple pie, will point out, accurately, that for years, the number of accidental shootings has been declining, along with overall gun deaths. By those measures, we’re becoming a safer country, even as some parents defy common sense and put machine guns in the hands of little kids.