A tragedy at an Arizona shooting range this week has set off a debate about children using high-powered weapons, as well as America's gun culture. Shooting range owners are defending their industry as safe, criticizing this particular operator for allowing a small girl to use an Uzi.
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A shooting range instructor died this week after being shoot by a 9-year-old girl. The accident happened when the girl apparently lost control of the Uzi submachine gun she was firing. As NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports, it set off a debate about children using such weapons and American's gun culture.
JENNIFER LUDDEN, BYLINE: The parents of girl were taking a cell phone video of her lesson Monday at the Last Stop outside shooting range in northern Arizona. They turned the video over to the sheriff who released it.
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CHARLES VACCA: Right now we have to keep that held in.
LUDDEN: In a stiff wind, 39-year-old instructor Charles Vacca leans down as the girl aims at a target. He, an army veteran in camouflage pants, she's wearing pink shorts, her dark hair in a long braid.
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VACCA: All right, go ahead and give me one shot.
VACCA: All right.
LUDDEN: Then Vacca switches the Uzi submachine gun to fully automatic. The video ends as the gun jerks upward, the girl apparently unable to control it's strong recoil. Vacca died Monday night. The local Sheriff's office says it will file no charges. Along with expressions of shock and grief, other shooting range operators have been quick to critique what happened.
BOB IRWIN: The gun was way too much gun for this girl to be handling without the range master having hands on the gun.
LUDDEN: Bob Irwin owns The Gun Store in Las Vegas. He also allows children to shoot but...
IRWIN: We enveloped the child from both sides so our range master's actually holding the front of the gun and holding the back of the gun. We have control of it completely.
LUDDEN: Under federal law, it's illegal for anyone under 18 to possess a gun, but experts say there's no restriction on children at shooting ranges. Still, Genghis Cohen, of Machine Guns Vegas says he never lets them handle fully automatic weapon. He cites a 2008 case in Massachusetts where an 8-year-old boy accidentally killed himself with an Uzi at a gun expo. A Uzi's recoil, Cohen says, can even throw off an adult, which is why he's installing a tethering system at his range to control that. Cohen says it's not fair to blame the industry for the Arizona tragedy, the pressure, he says, comes from clients. Cohen got a negative online review from one family who'd brought their two sons about 11 and 9.
GENGHIS COHEN: We allowed his older brother to shoot it, but we didn't allow the younger child to shoot it. And the parent got upset because the child threw a temper tantrum in our gun range.
LUDDEN: Cohen says his biggest clientele are foreigners who come from countries where it's difficult to own a gun and want to experience what they consider a quintessential part of American culture. There are shotgun wedding packages like this one at the gun store.
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LUDDEN: There are also bachelor packages, zombie packages, special tours for ladies and kids, This week, the National Rifle Association tweeted an article from Women's Outdoor New - seven ways children can have fun at the shooting range.
DAN GROSS: We need to have a cultural shift in the country.
LUDDEN: Dan Gross is president of the Brady Center to prevent gun violence. He doesn't think laws are the issue here. The issue, he says, is that all the adults in Monday's tragedy thought it was perfectly fine for a small girl to handle an Uzi.
GROSS: We can accomplish a lot more by educating parents about the risks associated with kids having access to guns, we believe, than we can talking about changing policies at gun ranges.
LUDDEN: But in a nation where guns are a contentious issue, even that may not be as easy as it sounds. An appeals court in Florida last month upheld a law banning pediatricians from talking to families about gun safety. It's being appealed. Jennifer Ludden, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.