A 9-year-old Arizona girl’s accidental killing of her firearms instructor this week reignited the national debate over guns, but with an unusual focus: children using fully automatic rifles.
North Carolina is among 30 states that don’t prohibit children from using rifles, whether it’s a .22-caliber squirrel rifle or a fully automatic Uzi like the one in the Arizona accident.
Some gun-control advocates are using the incident to call for new laws, but Charlotte-area gun experts say the answer is common sense and better training for instructors.
“I don’t think most people would think that a 9-year-old having access to this type of weapon is a good idea at any time,” said Brian Malte, mobilization director of the Brady Campaign Against Gun Violence. “I think there’s ground for agreement amongst people from all walks of society.”
Accidental gun deaths involving children do sometimes prompt new laws. An 8-year-old boy from Connecticut killed himself with an Uzi under adult supervision at a gun show in Massachusetts in 2008. Connecticut then passed a law making it illegal for children younger than 16 to use a machine gun at a shooting range.
Others say there’s no need for restrictions.
“I’m sure there are people that want different laws changed, but I think that was just a bad call on the (Arizona) instructor’s part,” said Sgt. Freddy Crain of the Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office.
“I don’t see any additional laws necessary,” said John Aldridge, who works with the N.C. Sheriff’s Association. “Each child has their own maturity level. ... I taught many, many children. You look at each individual child, and you take appropriate safeguards as the case may be.”
North Carolina law allows children younger than 12 to use “dangerous firearms” with adult supervision and the permission of a parent or guardian. Though there are federal laws restricting the age to purchase firearms, children can legally receive them as gifts or inherit them.
That means there is no legal age restriction on allowing children in shooting ranges or limiting what firearms they can use.
The law makes no distinction between a child using a fully automatic Uzi, which shoots 600 rounds per minute, and a semi-automatic .22 caliber rifle. Fully automatic weapons shoot multiple bullets with one pull of the trigger; semi-automatic weapons fire once each time the trigger is pulled.
8-year-olds on the range
Because buying a fully automatic firearm requires a special permit and can be expensive, renting at shooting ranges is popular.
Many shooting ranges in the Charlotte area allow children as young as 8 to shoot. Dave Driscoll, general manager of Point Blank Range in Mooresville, said the cut-off there is age 8 because younger kids are more susceptible to the lead given off by shooting guns. For renting guns without a parent, he said his range voluntarily uses the ages set by federal law for purchasing guns – 18 for long guns and 21 for handguns.
Driscoll said adults and children who come to his range are handled based on their individual abilities.
“We engage in conversation, do a safety orientation, read rules and sign them and ask questions,” he said. “In that process, we’re evaluating their level of expertise and experience and then we make recommendations.”
Robert Hosey is the general manager of Denver Defense, a shooting range in east Lincoln County expected to open this fall that will likely offer fully automatic rentals. He said each shooting range decides what their age limits will be.
“Our policy is we’ll rent with parents’ permission and we’ll allow children 12 years and older to use our facility,” he said. “Frankly, we reserve the right to refuse service to anybody.
“It’s more about mental maturity than physical age. You almost have to evaluate every minor and make an individual decision. I’ve seen some people over 50 years old that have no business holding a gun.”
While Point Blank and Shooters Express in Belmont have fully automatic weapons for rent, not every shooting range does. A representative from the Range at Lake Norman, which does not rent them, said the recoil from the powerful guns is hard to control and can result in damage to the ceiling and overhead lights.
David Drummond, owner of Carolinas Sporting Arms in Charlotte, said his range wants to offer fully automatic weapons in the future. He said they are popular, but that the small model used in Arizona is more dangerous and harder to control than the full-sized versions his range would offer.
“It’s being driven by customer demand and that’s why we’re thinking about putting it in,” he said.
The Brady Campaign’s Malte said he has seen a trend of gun tourism to Western states such as Arizona where families go to shoot machine guns.
Driscoll said he has had parents bring their teenagers, including children as young as 14, to Point Blank Range to use a fully automatic firearm as a birthday present.
“I don’t have an age requirement to rent a machine gun,” he said. “We have had parents who want to give their teen an experience. It’s very exciting, very fun and very safe. ... An inexperienced shooter at the age of 9 probably shouldn’t have had that experience (in Arizona). And with the proper instruction, it’s not a problem.”
Many children join youth shooting clubs to learn how to use guns, which is very different from families seeking an experience for their child, said Chris Bernash, a coach at Silver Bullets 4-H Shooting Club in Waxhaw, which works with kids ages 6 to 19 to shoot bow and arrows, rifles and shotguns.
“That’s like when you go to the rock wall for an afternoon of rock climbing,” Bernash said. “They’re giving you an experience. They’re not really taking you from step one all the way through to learn the ins and outs.”
Civilians can own fully automatic weapons legally if they are manufactured before May 1986, said Paul Valone, president of the gun-rights group Grass Roots North Carolina. They must pass federal and then local background checks, though some local law enforcement agencies have refused to sign the federal application to block the gun transfer, including in Mecklenburg.
“Sheriff (Chipp) Bailey has not signed nor will he sign for any automatic weapons,” said Tamara Rhode, permits and registration services supervisor for the Mecklenburg County Sheriff's Office.
Driscoll said that while the market for fully automatic weapons is small, it’s still bigger than most people realize.
“It’s an extremely exciting, exhilarating experience,” he said.