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The tragic accident this week at an Arizona shooting range, where an instructor was killed while showing a 9-year-old girl how to fire an Uzi, left range operators in the Toledo area stunned, saddened, and questioning how such a troubling incident could even happen.
Most ranges in northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan prohibit the use of fully automatic firearms, and have strict regulations concerning children using the range.
“Your first reaction is shock when you hear about such a sad, sad thing, because shooting ranges are always supposed to be about safety first,” said Keith Helminski, who runs Shooters of Maumee, a public range that opened about two years ago.
“These shooting ranges aren’t the wild, wild West, and that’s not the protocol for anyone around here. Giving a child that young, with no experience, that kind of firearm ... that’s like taking a 9-year-old who has obviously never ridden a motorcycle before and putting them on a Harley-Davidson — you know what the end result is going to be.”
Mr. Helminski said his range does allow fully automatic firearms to be used, but only after the individual shooter provides the necessary federal permits and paperwork that owning such firearms requires. He added that any full-auto firearm at the range is used only on the last lane of the facility, against a wall, to further reduce the chances of an accident taking place.
“There are people that own these types of firearms, but they are not common — this is very high-end stuff,” he said. “You can’t just go pick one up someplace, run to the range, and start firing it.”
Mr. Helminski said that although his range does not have a specific age limit for shooters, it requires a parent or guardian to accompany any minor, and minors are allowed on the range only after going through an extensive orientation program that focuses on safety issues. There are also safety officers present on the shooting range, Mr. Helminski said, and they closely supervise all the activity.
“Parents want the safety aspect first, and that’s why they bring the kids to a place where they have professionals teaching them about the safe and proper ways to handle firearms. Customers do come in with kids, but we watch the caliber and type of firearm very closely. It is a very, very rare case where 9-year-olds would be allowed to shoot anything that’s high-caliber.”
The unidentified young girl was with her parents Monday at the Bullets and Burgers outdoor range at a tourist stop in the northern Arizona desert community of White Hills, about an hour south of Las Vegas.
A video of the incident shows the girl firing a couple of rounds from the gun while it is in semi-automatic mode, which requires the shooter to pull the trigger in order to fire each round. Instructor Charles Vacca then reaches across and switches the firearm to “fully automatic” mode, which means that as long as the trigger is pulled, the weapon will continue to fire until it runs out of rounds.
“That’s not standard protocol anywhere that I know of,” Mr. Helminski said. “Something like that should never happen. She’s just a tiny little kid.”
About the Uzi
The Uzi is a lightweight firearm developed and first used by the Israeli Defense Forces about 60 years ago. Its small size — some versions are less than 20 inches long — made it popular among security personnel. When President Reagan was shot by John Hinckley, Jr., in 1981, one of the Secret Service agents accompanying the President quickly brandished an Uzi he had hidden under his jacket.
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In fully automatic mode, an Uzi can fire 10 rounds per second, producing a powerful kick that only an experienced shooter can control. Because of its compact size, an Uzi is best described as a machine pistol, not a machine gun, Mr. Helminski said. The Uzi used in the Arizona incident likely held a 30-round clip.
Cleland’s Outdoor World does not allow any automatic weapons in its Airport Highway store and shooting range, according to DeeDee Liedel, store manager.
“That is a firearm that is outside of the sporting atmosphere,” she said. “We don’t have the appropriate licenses, and anything of that type really has no place on our range.”
Ms. Liedel said there are no specific age requirements for children at Cleland’s range, where mostly handguns are used, and that each case is judged individually. She said children must be able to listen, behave, and follow instructions to be permitted in the facility, and anyone younger than 21 must be accompanied by an adult or guardian who first has to demonstrate competence on the range before being permitted full access.
“Every shooter has to show that they are competent, or take lessons first. We have had kids 6 years old come in with their grandfather and learn about gun safety and proper handling, and have had no problems with them,” Ms. Liedel said. “We encourage people to teach kids about the proper use and handling of guns — that makes us all safer. Hiding guns from kids only breeds curiosity.”
The Arizona incident left Ms. Liedel bewildered over the thought of an Uzi in the hands of a 9-year-old.
“I would never expect a child of that age to ever handle something like that,” she said.
Tom Urbanski operates Ski’s Firearms Training and Consulting on Woodville Road in Oregon. A Vietnam veteran who achieved an “Expert” rating in his weapons training at Fort Knox, Mr. Urbanski is an NRA certified instructor. He winced when he heard the news reports of the accident at the range in Arizona.
“My immediate reaction was ‘here we go again.’ It’s not the kid or the age of the kid that’s to blame in these cases, it’s the lack of knowledge on the part of the supervisor,” he said. “It’s the lack of common sense on the part of the instructor.”
Mr. Urbanski, who has had more than 4,000 individuals go through his gun safety and concealed-carry classes, said his facility is used only for training sessions that he conducts. He said the proper way to introduce children to firearms is in a very structured and gradual manner.
“After the safety instruction, I have them handle the gun empty several times to see if they are doing it properly. I’ll do that before I load it,” he said. “I think most gun clubs and shooting ranges offer classes for youths, but they start them out with single-shot 22-caliber rifles. It just makes sense to do it that way.”
Ned Plummer, who owned and operated one of the busiest gun stores in the area — the Trilby Sport Shop on Secor Road — for about three decades, said he feels terrible about the Arizona tragedy, and that adults put a young child in such a dangerous situation.
“It appears that no one ever told her how to hold it or what to do, but under no circumstances should anyone who is not very experienced with firearms ever be allowed to fire something on full-auto,” Mr. Plummer said. “What happened to her would have happened to a 15-year-old or a 55-year-old who had no experience with an Uzi. If you have never fired one, you have no chance of controlling it.”
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Mr. Plummer, who was an expert marksman in the Army, said he is a proponent of firearms instruction for youths, but only when safety is never compromised.
“I’m a great believer in starting children off being familiar with guns, but I can’t buy it at all in this case,” he said. “I support teaching a kid with a single-shot rifle, with an adult instructor inches away to help. When you leave the door open like they did in this case, then bad things will happen.”
Don Kegerreis is the chairman of the board of directors at Monroe County Rod and Gun Club on Lighthouse Road, and he said his club forbids the use of any full-auto firearms, and also bans rapid-fire shooting. He said the club has put hundreds of children through hunter safety courses taught by certified instructors, but that only low-caliber rifles or shotguns are used in those sessions.
“The thought of having a child shoot an automatic weapon has just never come up. That was a big mistake,” he said. “That goes against everything you know about safety as an instructor. I just can’t imagine how that could happen.”
The Southern Michigan Sportsman’s Club on West Temperance Road also prohibits the use of firearms that are fully automatic. Jerry Nastachowski is vice president of the club, and has been a member for about 30 years. The starting age for the club’s youth instruction program is 12 and those lessons are conducted with certified instructors and low-caliber firearms. Any children present at the range must be accompanied by an adult, he said.
“We always stress safety — you emphasize safety all of the time — and then containment,” he said. “They just were not thinking in that Arizona case. Even ex-military people will tell you that if you don’t let go of the trigger, you’re not going to be able to control that gun.”
Contact Blade outdoors editor Matt Markey at: email@example.com or 419-724-6068.