Charles Vacca’s Death Is A Tragedy, But Gun Range Accidents Are Exceedingly Rare

John Lott President, Crime Prevention Research Center
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Even experts sometimes make mistakes.  That happened this past Sunday when a firing range instructor at the Last Stop outdoor shooting range in White Hills, Arizona was accidentally shot to death by a 9-year-old student.

The reaction has been swift. Calling it “sick” over and over again, MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough “Who would put an Uzi in the hands of a nine-year-old girl? What is wrong with these people? What is wrong with this culture? What right is advanced by doing that?” The New York Times quotes one person’s outrage: “What in the name of Jesus is wrong with us, Americans?” And, of course, Shannon Watts from Michael Bloomberg’s Moms Demand Action was on television yesterday to discuss the tragedy and call for more gun control.

Anyone who has been to Las Vegas’ McCarran International Airport has probably seen the signs advertising shooting ranges that allow visitors to try shooting machine guns. People come from all around the world to visit these shooting ranges.

The accident is the first in the 14 years that the gun range has operated.  It occurred when the girl couldn’t handle the recoil from the automatic gun. Actually, each .22 LR caliber bullet is very small and has very little recoil. But while a semi-automatic weapon has only one bullet being fired per pull of the trigger, an automatic or machine gun will continue firing bullets as long at the trigger is depressed.  What might be a very small recoil from a single bullet is obviously much greater when many bullets are fired in rapid succession.

Because the total recoil gets larger, instructors typically place their hands on guns when children are first firing them. The firing range instructor in this case, Charles Vacca, 39, made a mistake in judging what the girl could handle. With the many thousands of news stories across the country, virtually everyone knows this type of danger by now.

Still, these cases are extraordinarily rare. This is only the second accident of its type involving a young child firing a machine gun. Another similar case occurred in 2008 at a gun expo in Massachusetts. In that case the child died.

Fortunately, accidental gun deaths in general are low, both for adults and for children. There were 591 deaths in 2011, the last year the Centers for Disease Control data are available. With over 300 million guns in the U.S. and around 45 percent of American households owning a gun, the accidental death rate is extremely low. Deaths at gun ranges, particularly when being supervised by an instructor, are close to zero. A quick search of news stories found one accidental gun death involving a 25-year-old woman at a Missouri shooting range last year.

When an adult supervises a minor, there are generally no laws barring them from shooting firearms. Federal law that bans the possession of handguns for those under 18 years of age exempts shooting ranges. The Last Stop shooting range followed the standards set by the National Association of Shooting Ranges, which forbids anyone under age 8 from entering the range.

Just about everything that we do is risky. In 2011, over 27,000 people died from falling and 3,556 died from drowning. Another 6,242 died from suffocation. If these types of deaths got the same news coverage that freakishly rare firearm deaths do, Americans would be afraid of leaving their homes.

More children die from combines and tractors on farms. If these deaths got this same national attention, would we be talking about the parents being irresponsible?

Charles Vacca’s death was a tragedy, but talking about policy changes after such extremely rare events doesn’t make much sense.