Brooke Levine knew her way around a BB gun by age 8. At 12, she was getting out of chores and earning extra allowance by out-shooting her father. For her high school yearbook last year, “Bull’s-eye Brookie” chose a photo of herself peering down the sight of a lime-green AR15 rifle.
She had a rare pleasure for a kid her age: She got to shoot a friend’s Uzi submachine gun. In a YouTube video taken by her father, Ed Levine, founder of the gun rights group Virginia Open Carry, Brooke donned pink earmuffs and smoothly let off a single shot.
“She’s shot machine guns for years before that,” Levine said. “Once you shoot one, it’s like riding a bike. You expect the same kick.”
The same kind of weapon was used this week by a 9-year-old girl in the accidental killing of her instructor at an Arizona firing range, reopening the debate about children and guns and prompting questions about how much firepower is too much for young hands.
The incident, captured in part on a grainy video released by police, drew immediate rebukes from gun-control advocates, who said it highlighted the dangers of children having access to firearms. In a rare moment of agreement, some gun rights advocates also took the incident as a warning that perhaps such young children should not be allowed to handle such a notoriously difficult and deadly weapon.
But the pro-gun advocates added that, when done safely, there are benefits to teaching even very young children to shoot certain guns. Youngsters learn hand-eye coordination. They learn what to do if they stumble upon a weapon on the playground. And they learn how to defend themselves if they are ever attacked.
For Nancy Lichtman, who picked up guns as a hobby a few years ago after a man tried to force her into a car in a parking lot, learning to shoot not only became a way to empower herself but to engage her family in what she considers a wholesome activity. Her adult daughter and 15-year-old son now shoot regularly, she said.
Still, despite her son’s facility with a variety of firearms, she said she would never let him shoot an Uzi. “I just don’t think a kid has any business with a weapon like that,” said Lichtman, 43, of Stafford, Virginia.
Shooting instructors said in interviews that in some cases, a 9-year-old may be able to handle an Uzi, even though it has a tricky recoil and can fire hundreds of rounds per minute. The child would have to weigh enough to handle the recoil and have some experience with guns. The parent and instructor would have to jointly determine that the child is mature and skilled enough to operate the firearm safely.
The instructors, who saw the video, said the instructor, Charles Vacca, probably could have taken more precautions. He could have tethered the muzzle so it did not move too much. Rather than standing to the girl’s left, as Vacca apparently did, according to the video, he could have stood behind her, holding her hands firmly to maintain control if she could not.
“Had he been behind her or on her strong side, probably nobody would have gotten hurt,” said Philip Van Cleave, a shooting instructor and president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, a pro-gun rights group.
An investigation of the incident, which took place Monday morning at the Last Stop shooting range about an hour outside Las Vegas, is ongoing. The gun range is shut down at least temporarily, the Arizona Republic reported. Attempts on Thursday to reach the Last Stop were unsuccessful. Vacca’s ex-wife said a statement would be released shortly.
But groups advocating for stiffer gun-control measures say there is no safe way for a child that young to use such a powerful weapon.
“It’s a terrible tragedy,” Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said Thursday. “It’s safe to say that it is not a responsible thing to do to let a 9-year-old have access to a machine gun.”
In 2011, 32,351 people were killed by firearms, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and 591 of those deaths were deemed accidental. Nearly one in five of the accidental deaths involved someone younger than 18, said Jon Vernick, co-director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research.
There are loose restrictions governing certain elements of gun ownership. Federal law states that minors cannot possess a handgun, albeit with exceptions including target practice, but there is no minimum age for possessing a long gun such as a shotgun or a rifle, according to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
Thirty states do not set a minimum age for possessing a long gun. But those that do, as well as the District of Columbia, have minimum ages that range from 14 to 21. But many of the states with age restrictions do have exceptions that allow for underage children to use long guns when target shooting or hunting, the center says. (Arizona does not have a minimum age for possessing a long gun.)
Some states have tightened their restrictions after unintentional shootings. After an 8-year-old Connecticut boy accidentally killed himself in 2008 with an Uzi because of the gun’s powerful recoil, the state passed a law the following year prohibiting anyone younger than 16 from using machine guns.
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