How Does a 9-Year-Old Come to Shoot a Fully Automatic Weapon?

The Uzi tragedy in Arizona, explained.

| Thu Aug. 28, 2014 2:29 PM EDT
An Uzi.

A nine-year-old in Arizona accidentally killed her gun instructor on Monday when the Uzi he was teaching her to fire recoiled out of her control and shot him in the head. A video of the incident shows 39-year-old Charles Vacca switching the gun into automatic mode, then standing at the girl's side as she pulls the trigger and the weapon's force wrenches her arm in his direction.

Many commentators have since expressed disbelief—though not the NRA, which was busy talking up fun for kids at gun ranges—that a child was permitted to wield a weapon with such firepower.

But the shooting lesson was just normal business at the firing range where Vacca worked. Its "Bullets and Burgers" website advertises vacation packages like "Extreme Sniper Adventure": "At our range, you can shoot FULL auto on our machine guns," it reads. "Let 'em Rip!" It also says children between 8 and 17 can use its guns as long as a parent is present. The mother and father of the girl, whose name has not been made public, both were on Monday. Still, questions linger about the tragedy.

How did Burgers and Bullets get all those weapons in the first place? Isn't it illegal to possess fully automatic weapons in the US?
Under the federal Firearm Owners' Protection Act of 1986, it became a crime for civilians to own machine guns, but with a huge exception: Any gun made before the law went into effect is exempt. It's fine for civilians to resell and buy those old guns, too, as long as the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives approves the sale. The approval process involves a $200 transfer tax and an FBI background check. A few states have banned automatic weapons entirely, but Arizona, one of the most gun-friendly states, is not one of them.

Can it really be legal for an elementary school kid to shoot an Uzi?
"Assuming it was a pre-1986 machine gun and the sale was legal, then yes," says Laura Cutilletta, senior staff attorney at the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. Federal law prohibits children under 18 from buying guns, but they can still fire them with adult supervision.

Less than three days after the tragedy, the Mohave County Sheriff's Office said it didn't expect to file criminal charges, according to CNN. Arizona authorities say the situation is being treated as an industrial accident, and job safety officials are investigating. So is the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

How hard is it to handle one of these guns?
Quartz's Gwynn Guilford did the math: With the average American nine-year-old girl weighing about 60 pounds, and the average Uzi weighing seven to nine pounds, "That would be roughly equal to a 40-year-old man firing a 25-pound gun like, say, the Hotchkiss M1909 used in trench warfare in World Wars I and II—a weapon so heavy it sat on a tripod." (Ironically, the Uzi is designed to be relatively light in the hands of an adult, which can also make handling its powerful recoil more tricky.)

The shooting range's manager said that the girl's parents had signed waivers and understood the range's rules. Still, he told the Associated Press, "I have regret we let this child shoot, and I have regret that [Vacca] was killed in the incident."

Has anything like this happened before and what might it mean for the national gun debate?
Sadly, this tragedy is not the first of its kind. An eight-year-old Massachusetts boy died at a gun show in 2008, when an Uzi he was firing at pumpkins kicked back and he shot himself in the head. The former police chief who organized the show and provided the child with the weapon was acquitted of involuntary manslaughter.

That incident did have one positive outcome, in Cutilletta's view: It inspired neighboring Connecticut to pass a law banning anyone under 16 from using a machine gun at a shooting range.

Shannon Watts, the founder of the advocacy group Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, said in a statement Wednesday that she hopes the Arizona case will galvanize the national debate about guns specifically with regard to children. "Our thoughts and prayers go out to the families of the victim and the young girl involved in this tragedy," Watts said. "We hope this event spurs dialogue on the importance of gun safety and responsibility."

Do deadly gun accidents involving children usually result in nobody being held legally responsible?
Indeed, that's the outcome in the vast majority of cases. A recent Mother Jones investigation found that out of 72 cases in 2013 in which kids handling guns accidentally killed themselves or other kids, adults were held criminally liable in only 4.

Get Mother Jones by Email - Free. Like what you're reading? Get the best of MoJo three times a week.