MOHAVE COUNTY, Arizona — A nine-year-old girl learning to fire a submachine gun accidentally killed her instructor at a shooting range when the weapon recoiled over her shoulder, according to Arizona authorities.
The instructor, 39-year-old Charles Vacca, died at a hospital late Monday night after he was shot in the head.
The Mohave County Sheriff’s Office said the girl was with her parents. The three reside in New Jersey. The website of Bullets and Burgers, the shooting range where the accident happened, says children between the ages of eight and 17 can shoot a weapon if accompanied by a parent or guardian.
Police said the weapon was an Uzi, an Israeli-made submachine gun that some experts say is the wrong choice of firepower for instructing a child.
Representatives of the gun range declined CNN requests for comment on the incident Wednesday. But Sam Scarmardo, who operates Bullets and Burgers, told CNN affiliate KLAS Tuesday they “really don’t know what happened.”
“Our guys are trained to basically hover over people when they’re shooting,” Scarmardo said. “If they’re shooting right-handed, we have our right-hand behind them ready to push the weapon out of the way. And if they’re left-handed, the same thing.”
No charges to be filed
The investigation into the shooting has been completed and no charges were pending, according to the sheriff’s department.
Authorities said the death was being handled as an industrial accident, with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration investigating. The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives also was notified.
An autopsy on Vacca was completed but the cause and manner of death were pending, according to Colleen Pitre, a representative of the medical examiner’s officer. She would not say how many times Vacca was shot.
It wasn’t the first fatal accident involving a child and an Uzi. In 2008, an 8-year-old boy in Massachusetts accidentally shot himself with a micro Uzi during a gun show.
Experts question choice of weapon
Gun experts contacted by CNN Wednesday said it was preferable to teach young children to shoot with single-shot firearms rather than submachine guns, but added that some Uzi submachine guns can be modified to control the powerful recoil. The supervision and experience of instructors is crucial.
“It’s always the supervision,” said Greg Danas, president of Massachusetts-based G&G Firearms. “But you also have gun enthusiasts running businesses where they place firearms in the hands of the uninformed, whether they’re nine-year-old kids who are not capable or adults. It all stems from gun enthusiasts running businesses that require a level of professionalism and education. The unexpected with firearms is something that’s only learned through years of being a trainer, not a gun enthusiast.”
Danas questioned why the instructor in Arizona was standing immediately to the left of the Uzi, which would have recoiled in that direction.
“It’s an awful shame,” he said. “He shouldn’t have been to the left side of the gun… But that child should not have been shooting anything other than a single-shot firearm.”
Danas, whose daughters are 11 and 13, said his girls learned to shoot when they were 4 years old, with a single-shot, .22-caliber pistol.
Greg Block, who runs California-based Self-Defense Firearms Training, said not only was the Uzi the wrong gun to use — “That’s not a kid’s gun” — but that instructors should stand to the rear and to the right of the shooter.
“He was literally in the line of fire,” Block said of the instructor. “He did pretty much everything wrong and I don’t like saying that because it cost the man his life.”
Steven Howard, a Michigan-based gun expert who runs American Firearms & Munitions Consulting, said it was difficult to comment based on the limited information available about the Arizona shooting, but added that the clip on the submachine gun should not hold more than three rounds during instruction.
“Teaching people machine gun 101, even with adults, even with people going through military training, the first few times they shoot machine guns you don’t have them shoot a full freaking clip,” he said. “The thing begins to fire and it begins to jump and buck all over the place. Your first human instinct is for your hands to clamp down, and you clamp down on the trigger and if the thing has a 32-round magazine … it starts spraying all over and people get killed.”
But he said some submachine guns can be used to train children.
“It can be done under the right circumstances,” Howard said. “There are some machine guns that I could have trained my eight-year-old on.”
Video shows fatal shooting
In Arizona, cell phone video released by authorities Tuesday shows the moments before the fatal shots were fired, CNN affiliate KLAS reported.
In the video, Vacca and the girl are at an outdoor range. The wind blows a target in the distance. Vacca shows the child how to hold the gun and then helps her establish her grip and her stance. She fires one round and dirt flies above the target. Vacca adjusts the Uzi, places his right hand on her back and his left under her right arm.
She fires several rounds in rapid succession and the gun kicks to the left as she loses control. The video ends before the fatal head shot. In releasing the video, authorities did not identify who made it.
Vacca was married, well-liked and a veteran, KLAS said.
The range, which is about an hour’s drive from Las Vegas, says on its Facebook page: “We separate ourselves from all other Las Vegas ranges with our unique ‘Desert Storm’ atmosphere and military style bunkers.”
Child dies at gun show
In the Massachusetts incident, former Pelham Police Chief Edward Fleury was found not guilty in 2011 of involuntary manslaughter in the 2008 death of 8-year-old Christopher Bizilj, who was firing the micro Uzi when he accidentally shot himself in the head at a gun show Fleury helped organize. The boy died instantly.
Fleury also was acquitted of three counts of furnishing a machine gun to a minor.
Christopher’s father, Charles Bizilj, was present at the time of the shooting and videotaped the entire incident. Parts of that tape were shown to the jury, which also heard emotional testimony from the father.
“I ran over to him. His eyes were open and I saw no reason for him to be on the ground,” Bizilj told members of the Hampden County jury. “And I tried to talk to him and he didn’t respond. I put my hand behind his head to try to pick him up and there was a large portion of his cranium missing. And I put my hand against the back of his head.”