WHITE HILLS, Ariz. — The four-hour tours offered by one of the big gun ranges here are a popular tourist attraction: Starting at $200 a person, a bus will pick up visitors at their hotel in Las Vegas, 25 miles to the 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.
But 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 that the girl, in pink shorts and with a braided ponytail, was unable to control the gun’s recoil; the instructor, Charles Vacca, 39, was rushed to a hospital in Las Vegas, where he died Monday night.
The parents turned the cellphone video over to the sheriff’s department, which released it publicly. As they spread online and on television, the images of a small girl losing control of a powerful war weapon during a family vacation created a worldwide spectacle, prompting some commentators to castigate parents who would put a submachine gun in the hands of a child.
“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 the practice of letting children use firearms and pointed out that it is both legal and commonplace in the Las Vegas area and elsewhere. But even the owner of 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 in an interview. “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 that the girl’s parents “were very familiar with weapons’’ and that Vacca and a tour guide had driven the family to the shooting range from their hotel in Las Vegas.
“We lost a friend — basically, we lost a brother. We are all very close. We are a tightknit organization and community,’’ Scarmardo said. “Everyone here at Last Stop is either former military or police officer. We are all highly trained in fire arms and safety.’’
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 under 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 do prohibit young children from handling such heavy weapons, but Last Stop allows children as young as 8 to participate. A tour company called Bullets and Burgers that brings people to Last Stop said on its website that customers could “Shoot a wide variety of fully automatic machine and belt fed guns including the AK-47, Colt M-16, MP5/40, FN FAL, Bren, M4, M249, M60, PKM, and M203 Grenade Launcher.’’
But 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 on Monday “tragic,’’ but added, “It was completely and utterly avoidable.’’
“It was just a result of a lapse of attention,’’ Cohen said, “but I would never let a girl of that size shoot a fully automatic gun of that size — never.’’
Cohen said that Uzis were notorious for rising as they fire, although usually to the right rather than the left. The video of the girl firing the Uzi on Monday 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 an 8-year-old Massachusetts boy, Christopher K. Bizilj, accidentally shot and killed himself. In reaction, Connecticut imposed tougher gun regulations a year later, restricting access to machine guns for anyone under 16.
In the video, the girl, whose name has not been released, positioned herself before the target at an outdoor shooting range in this outpost in the Mojave Desert — one leg in front of the other, torso turned to the left, hands clutched around the grip of the Uzi, which appeared compact and light enough for her age and small build. When the girl 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 then 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,’’ said Scarmardo of Last Stop, which is off a four-lane stretch of Route 93 linking Phoenix to Las Vegas, framed by mountains, cactus and sand. The place has a gift shop that sells beer, bracelets and roadside kitsch.
“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 to train firearms instructors, said he told students it was “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, Arizona. “I don’t think a 9-year-old should be shooting them.’’
This year, at least 45 children have been killed in accidental shootings after they found loaded guns at home, according to the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence. Daniel Webster, the director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, said that what happened at Last Stop was “an outlier.’’ Shooting ranges are generally regarded as safe places, where guns are fired in a controlled setting and under the supervision of trained instructors.
The tour company Bullets and Burgers had drawn numerous positive reviews on the website TripAdvisor; out of its 946 ratings, 932 were “excellent’’ or “very good.’’ An accompanying description of its services reads: “You will choose the guns which you want to shoot from our extensive collection, and we provide the eye/ear protection, ammunition, and expert guidance.’’
It adds: “Our .50 Cal. selections includes the Barrett Sniper Rifle, the Browning BMG .50 Cal (‘the deuce’) and the Desert Eagle. We even have the actual firearms used in several Hollywood hits including ‘The Terminator’ and ‘Rambo II.’’’