LAS VEGAS — The death of an Arizona firearms instructor by a 9-year-old girl who was firing a fully automatic Uzi displayed a tragic side of what has become a hot industry in the U.S.: gun tourism.
With gun laws keeping high-powered weapons out of reach for most people — especially those outside the U.S. — indoor shooting ranges with high-powered weapons have become a popular attraction.
Tourists from Japan flock to ranges in Waikiki, Hawaii, and the dozen or so that have cropped up in Las Vegas offer bullet-riddled bachelor parties and literal shotgun weddings, where newly married couples can fire submachine gun rounds and pose with Uzis and ammo belts.
“People just want to experience things they can’t experience elsewhere,” said Genghis Cohen, owner of Machine Guns Vegas. “There’s not an action movie in the past 30 years without a machine gun.”
The accidental shooting death of the firing-range instructor in Arizona set off a powerful debate over youngsters and guns, with many people wondering what sort of parents would let a child handle a submachine gun.
Instructor Charles Vacca, 39, was standing next to the girl Monday at the Last Stop range in White Hills, Arizona, about 60 miles south of Las Vegas, when she squeezed the trigger. The recoil wrenched the Uzi upward, and Vacca was shot in the head.
Prosecutors say they will not file charges in the case. The identities of the girl and her family have not been released.
The dusty outdoor range calls itself the Bullets and Burgers Adventure and touts its “Desert Storm atmosphere.”
Similar attractions have been around since the 1980s in Las Vegas, although the city has experienced a boom of such businesses in the past few years. Excitement over guns tends to spike when there’s fear of tighter gun restrictions, according to Dan Sessions, general manager of Discount Firearms and Ammo, which houses the Vegas Machine Gun Experience.
There’s also the prohibitive cost of owning an automatic weapon — an M5 might go for $25,000, while a chance to gun down zombie targets with an AR-15 and three other weapons costs less than $200.
“It’s an opportunity that people may not come across again in their lifetime,” Sessions said.
Tourists from Australia, Europe or Asia, where civilians are barred from many types of guns, long to indulge in the quintessentially American right to bear arms.
“People have a fascination with guns,” said Cohen, who is from New Zealand and estimates about 90 percent of his customers are tourists. “They see guns as a big part of American culture, and they want to experience American culture.”
The businesses cast a lighthearted spin on their shooting experiences, staging weddings in their ranges and selling souvenir T-shirts full of bullet holes.
But behind the bravado, owners acknowledge they are one errant movement away from tragedy. Cohen’s business, for example, is installing a tethering system that will prevent machine guns from riding upward after firing — the same motion that killed the gun instructor this week.
“Guns are designed to cause damage, and if they’re mishandled, they’ll do exactly that,” said Bob Irwin, owner of The Gun Store, the original Las Vegas machine gun attraction. “They have to be respected.”
Sam Scarmardo, who operates the outdoor range in Arizona where the instructor was killed, said Wednesday that the parents had signed waivers saying they understood the rules and were standing nearby, video-recording their daughter, when the accident happened.
“I have regret we let this child shoot, and I have regret that Charlie was killed in the incident,” Scarmardo said. He said he doesn’t know what went wrong, pointing out that Vacca was an Army veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Jace Zack, chief deputy for the Mohave County Attorney’s Office, said the instructor was probably the most criminally negligent person involved in the accident for having allowed the child to hold the gun without enough training.
“The parents aren’t culpable,” Zack said. “They trusted the instructor to know what he was doing, and the girl could not possibly have comprehended the potential dangers involved.”
Still, the accident has raised questions about whether children that young should be handling such powerful weapons.
“We have better safety standards for who gets to ride a roller coaster at an amusement park,” said Gerry Hills, founder of Arizonans for Gun Safety, a group seeking to reduce gun violence. Referring to the girl’s parents, Hills said: “I just don’t see any reason in the world why you would allow a 9-year-old to put her hands on an Uzi.”
In 2008, an 8-year-old boy died after accidentally shooting himself in the head with an Uzi at a gun expo near Springfield, Massachusetts. Christopher Bizilj was firing at pumpkins when the gun kicked back. A former Massachusetts police chief whose company co-sponsored the gun show was later acquitted of involuntary manslaughter.
Dave Workman, senior editor at thegunmag.com and a spokesman for the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms, said it can be safe to let children shoot an automatic weapon if a properly trained adult is helping them hold it.
After viewing the video of the Arizona shooting, Workman said Vacca appeared to have tried to help the girl maintain control by placing his left hand under the weapon. But automatic weapons tend to recoil upward, he noted.
“If it was the first time she’d ever handled a full-auto firearm, it’s a big surprise when that gun continues to go off,” said Workman, a firearms instructor for 30 years. “I’ve even seen adults stunned by it.”
Scarmardo said his policy of allowing children 8 and older to fire guns under adult supervision and the watchful eye of an instructor is standard practice in the industry. The range’s policies are under review, he said.