A typical family vacation ordinarily brings to mind a trip to a beach, a road trip, or maybe a destination like Walt Disney World Resort. But last week, as part of a family vacation, a nine-year old girl with a braided ponytail wearing pink shorts headed off to a place called The Arizona Last Stop to shoot an arsenal of weapons at a firing range.
The gruesome results of the excursion, which was video-recorded by her mother, made headline news all over world — the little girl, shooting an Uzi machine gun, accidentally killed her gun range instructor when she lost control of a weapon that was never intended to be fired for fun by an untrained nine year old (or perhaps, one could argue, any nine year old).
Bullets and Burgers, the Las Vegas company that provided the trip to The Arizona Last Stop, boasts on its website that it permits anyone as young as eight years old to “fire a wide range of fully automatic machine guns and specialty weapons. Compared to the short 3 round bursts you shoot at indoor ranges, (a)t our range, you can shoot FULL auto on our machine guns. ‘Let ’em Rip!” The only constraint on a minor unleashing the deadly force of 950 rounds per minute is a parent’s permission.
No detailed safety training or precautions are listed on the website that would ensure that a child utilizing The Arizona Last Stop is physically (much less emotionally) capable or qualified to manage the power and responsibility of a military grade gun. Just a parent’s ok, a pair of headphones to drown out the bullets’ din (as if hearing loss is the biggest concern), a random instructor and, then, off to the range with an Uzi a kid can go.
The Arizona Last Stop calamity revealed the cavalier way guns can be accessed by children in this country as well as the fact that shooting automatic weapons for fun is a growing, but largely unregulated, entertainment industry. These revelations raise critical questions.
How can children possibly access guns of this capacity? The answer varies widely state to state. According to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, there is no federal law that prohibits children accessing guns. While some states prohibit possession or ownership of guns like Uzis to children, there is a broad exception that allows minors to access guns in some capacity if a parent or instructor is present, or if they are hunting or target shooting.
Twenty-eight states’ laws incorporate this type of exception. Twenty-one states, including Arizona, have no laws that address a minor’s ability to access a weapon.
Only one state places an absolute prohibition on children using automatic weapons. After an eight-year old Connecticut boy accidentally killed himself while firing an Uzi at a Massachusetts gun show, Connecticut enacted legislation that prohibits the shooting of an automatic weapon by a child.
The disparity amongst the states’ laws provides no clear standards for determining appropriate safety regulations, but since Connecticut has considered the legal ramifications when it responded to its constituent’s death, perhaps its law should be the bright line standard.
Secondly, are adequate safety regulations in place governing gun ranges’ foray into the hospitality and entertainment industry? Bullets and Burgers is not a private gun club, but a business marketing itself to the general public, including families, as a place of entertainment. TripAdvisor currently lists Bullets and Burgers as the number one attraction in Las Vegas (ahead of 574 options, including Elton John, Red Rocks, Cirque de Soleil, and The Wedding Chapel).
Industry specific regulations governing the use of Bullets and Burgers in its operation as something akin to a theme park do not seem present, maybe because a gun range as an amusement facility is relatively new in burgeoning popularity. But just as amusement parks are subjected to a host of rigorous equipment checks and safety rules, as well as minimum age, height and weight requirements for rides, gun ranges like Burgers and Bullets ought to be held to a similar, if not higher, standard of care. A gun is more dangerous than a roller coaster.
After a review of the accident, the Mojave Sheriff’s Department has determined that it will not file criminal charges against anyone involved in the shooting death of Chris Vacca, the range instructor who was killed. That seems reasonable; the little girl and her family entangled in this fiasco did not expect this deadly outcome and they have already stated they are devastated by what occurred.
But lack of a criminal charge should not end the inquiry into what happened in Arizona. Safe industry standards for gun range use by children have to be established, laws governing access to weapons by children need to be made uniform, and questions about gun themed entertainment centers, and regulations overseeing their safety, need to be raised.
Right now, the only place that seems to still be investigating the incident is the Arizona Division of Occupational Health and Safety, a state agency that examines workplace welfare; categorizing Vacca’s death as primarily a workplace safety problem seems to entirely miss the mark.
Ultimately, though, in the aftermath of the Bullets and Burgers incident, two overriding concerns demand answers. Are we really willing to allow children circuitous access to military grade firepower? And do we want places that offer use of weapons that are designed to decimate human flesh to be viewed as ubiquitous family friendly pit-stops in the same vein as, for instance, Chuck E Cheese or Six Flags? Unfortunately, in America, those are loaded questions.
Lisa Perez Tighe has been an attorney, writer and a professor. She attended the University of Notre Dame and New York University School of Law. A native of the Bronx, Lisa currently resides outside of Boston with her husband and four children.