On Monday, a 9-year-old girl accidentally shot and killed a firearms instructor in Arizona. The gun was an Uzi set to full-auto mode -- meaning that the weapon fired continuously when the trigger was held down -- and the girl apparently lacked the strength to control the recoil. The ownership of fully automatic guns is heavily regulated in the U.S., but there are events and ranges where non-owners, including children, can legally shoot them.
I agree with my old National Review colleague Charles C.W. Cooke that an Uzi is quite possibly the worst gun for a 9-year-old girl to shoot. This should not have happened. But here I'd like to stress two crucial distinctions that a lot of the media coverage seems to miss.
To put my cards on the table, I grew up in Wisconsin, my father was a police officer (he's now retired), I have a concealed-carry permit, and I hunt deer. I was probably 8 or 9 when I shot a gun myself for the first time, and my parents bought me a .22 rifle for my 12th birthday.
When I have kids, I plan to give them basically the same experience. Here's why that's different from what happened Monday, and from the other dangerous situations that some parents put their children in.
1. Letting kids shoot vs. letting kids shoot Uzis.
People who didn't grow up around guns often seem to have no idea what the normal practices are when it comes to kids. Many states have no minimum age for hunting, and the ones that do have minimum ages often set them to 10 or 12 -- remember, this is for hunting, and you need to have some experience shooting before you're ready to hunt. There is absolutely nothing unusual about a child of this age shooting a normal gun under proper supervision, and the risks are minimal.
Letting a 9-year-old shoot a fully automatic weapon is a different story. Most civilian-owned guns fire once for each trigger pull -- so even if the gun jumps quite a bit in the child's hands, it won't fire again. But someone without a lot of upper body strength can have trouble controlling a fully automatic weapon.
One gun instructor told the Associated Press that a teacher should help hold the gun in this kind of situation. Others have pointed out that instructors should be behind shooters, not off to the side, as the girl's was. I'd call those guidelines a bare minimum.
2. "Owning" or "possessing" a gun vs. having unsupervised access to it.
As I wrote above, I've "owned" a gun since I was 12. I also "possessed" a gun as a child when hunting or target-shooting with my father. But when I wasn't using guns under supervision, the guns were properly stored.
Though Wisconsin makes it illegal to "possess" a long gun until the age of 18, it makes exceptions for kids who are being supervised while hunting and target shooting (and in fact the state grants hunter's-safety permits to minors). Conversely, many other states, while not regulating possession directly, have laws designed to make sure kids can't get a hold of guns when parents aren't around. In other words, what we're talking about here are policies toward unsupervised access, not "ownership" or "possession" as those terms are used colloquially, and different policies can have essentially the same effect. These policies have little to do with what happened in Arizona.
This is where WonkBlog is a bit misleading: Based on data from smartgunlaws.org, it provides a map of states that have lax or no minimum age requirements for the "possession" of long guns. It neglects other laws regarding kids' access to weapons. By my count -- also based on information from smartgunlaws.org -- nearly half of the 30 states listed as having "no minimum," including California and Texas, the two biggest states in the country, have some kind of child-access law. These range from requiring guns to be locked up, to merely prohibiting the knowing or reckless provision of a gun to a child.
There are certainly lessons in this tragedy -- however rare gun accidents are, they do happen, and they usually happen because someone wasn't following the rules for storing or handling a weapon. There are some states that do little if anything to regulate children's access to firearms, and even when there are regulations, parents aren't always held to account when their children get hurt playing with guns. It may well be a good idea to change that. But let's focus on getting people to follow the rules, rather than expressing a generalized horror that some kids are allowed to shoot guns or overstating the laxity of the laws already on the books.
Robert VerBruggen is editor of RealClearPolicy. Twitter: @RAVerBruggen
[Note: A reference to Uzis as hand-held guns that are not pressed against the shoulder has been removed from this post. From a video of the incident, it appears the gun was outfitted with a stock.]