WHITE HILLS, Ariz. —
The four-hour tours offered by one of the big gun ranges in White Hills are a popular tourist attraction: Starting at $200 a person, a bus will pick up visitors at their hotel in Las Vegas, 25 miles north, show them Hoover Dam and bring them to a recreational shooting range called Last Stop, where they can fire the weapons of their dreams: automatic machine guns, sniper rifles, grenade launchers. A hamburger lunch is included; a helicopter tour of the nearby Grand Canyon is optional.
On Monday, one family’s adventure went horribly wrong: A 9-year-old girl from New Jersey accidentally shot and killed her instructor with an Uzi submachine gun while he stood to her side, trying to guide her. A video of the shooting, which her parents recorded by cellphone, suggests the girl was unable to control the gun’s recoil; the instructor, Charles Vacca, 39, was taken to a hospital in Las Vegas, where he died Monday night.
The parents gave the cellphone video to the sheriff’s department, which released 27 seconds of footage publicly, showing the girl from behind as she fires at a black-silhouette target. As the footage, which does not show the instructor being shot, spread online and on television, the images of a girl losing control of a powerful weapon created a worldwide spectacle, prompting some commentators to castigate parents who would put a submachine gun in the hands of a child.
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“What in the name of Jesus is wrong with us, Americans?” one person wrote on the TripAdvisor page for Bullets and Burgers, the tour company that brings people to Last Stop, amid other reviewers who raved about the great time they had firing guns there. “Automatic weapons as toys? And now a man is dead, for no reason, and a 9-year-old girl is scarred for life.”
Some gun owners took to Twitter to defend letting children use firearms and pointed out that it is legal and commonplace in the Las Vegas area and elsewhere. But even the owner of the Last Stop, Sam Scarmardo, said he would reconsider the practice in light of Monday’s accident. He said he had been in business 14 years and had never had a problem before.
“It is pretty standard in the industry to let children shoot on the range,” Scarmardo said. “We are working with the Mohave County Sheriff’s Office, and we’ll make a decision if we’ll make any changes after we review all the facts.”
Scarmardo said the girl’s parents “were very familiar with weapons” and Vacca and a tour guide had driven the family to the shooting range from a hotel in Las Vegas.
“We lost a friend; basically, we lost a brother,” Scarmardo said. “Everyone here at Last Stop is either former military or police officer. We are all highly trained in fire arms and safety.”
Prosecutors 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 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.”
There is nothing illegal about a girl handling an Uzi. In Arizona, there are no age limits for firing guns, and while federal law prohibits people younger than 18 from possessing a handgun, there are exceptions for shooting ranges, said Laura Cutilletta, senior staff attorney at the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, a legal nonprofit that works to strengthen gun laws.
Some ranges in the area prohibit young children from handling such heavy weapons, but Last Stop allows children as young as 8 to participate.
Uzis are considered particularly tricky because they are light — unloaded, they weigh just under 8 pounds — and powerful, making recoil tricky to handle even for adults, gun experts said. Designed for the Israeli military in the 1950s, Uzis are known for their simple design and operation, and they have been featured extensively in popular movies and video games.
“We allow children to shoot, but not a fully automatic Uzi,” said Genghis Cohen, owner of an indoor shooting range, Machine Guns Vegas. He called the shooting Monday “tragic,” but added: “It was completely and utterly avoidable.”
Cohen said Uzis are notorious for rising as they fire. The video of the girl firing the Uzi shows the weapon rising and jerking to the left, toward Vacca.
Cohen said it was “pretty much the same situation” as in 2008 at a Connecticut gun show, when a Massachusetts boy, Christopher Bizilj, 8, accidentally shot and killed himself with an Uzi while shooting pumpkins. In reaction, Connecticut imposed tougher gun regulations a year later, banning anyone younger than 16 from handling machine guns at shooting ranges.
In the video, the girl, whose name has not been released, positioned herself before the target: one leg in front of the other, torso turned to the left, hands clutched around the grip of the Uzi. When she fired her first shot, a puff of dust rose as the bullet hit the knoll behind the target. Vacca let out a celebratory “all right,” and shifted the gun to fully automatic mode. The girl again pulled the trigger but could not hold the gun straight as bullets came flying out at a rate of 600 rounds per minute.
Vacca “just dropped,” Sheriff Jim McCabe of Mohave County said. Vacca was airlifted to a hospital in Las Vegas and died 11 hours later.
Vacca “had a long military career” and “was very well-trained,” Scarmardo said. “In the last 14 years, we’ve probably had 100,000 people shoot 5 million rounds of ammunition, and of those, a thousand to two thousand of them were children,” he said. “We’ve never given out a Band-Aid — no one’s never even got a scratch.”
Craig Cox, who is certified by the National Rifle Association (NRA) to train firearms instructors, said he tells students it is “a judgment call on their part as far as allowing people of a certain age, children, to use certain types of firearms,” especially submachine guns.
“This is a personal opinion,” said Cox, based in Mesa, Ariz. “I don’t think a 9-year-old should be shooting them.”
Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.