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June 26, 2017

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Safety first: How do we keep children educated and secure in a culture of guns?

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Steve Marcus

Jeff (last name withheld) and his daughter McKenna, 9, at Clark County Shooting Complex on Sunday, Aug. 31, 2014.

Seven accidental child shootings in one month. On two occasions, two per day.

May days

• May 3: A 3-year-old Wisconsin boy shoots himself in the head after finding a loaded handgun in the glove box of his mother’s car.

• May 12: A South Carolina 3-year-old finds a gun under a mattress and shoots himself in the leg.

• May 12: A 4-year-old shoots himself in the head while visiting his grandmother’s house in South Carolina. He dies four days later.

• May 17: An Indiana 4-year-old fatally shoots himself in the head with his parents’ gun after managing to get it down from a high shelf in a closet.

• May 17: A 5-year-old North Carolina boy, the son of a deputy, shoots himself in the ear with his father’s service revolver.

• May 25: A Florida 6-year-old shoots and kills his grandfather with an assault rifle left unattended on a table at a family barbecue. The gun belongs to the child’s uncle.

• May 27: A 3-year-old Arizona boy shoots and kills his 1 1/2-year-old brother after the boys find a handgun in a neighbor’s apartment.

This is the norm in America.

An average of two children a week, more than 100 a year, are killed in unintentional shootings by their peers, according to a study by two gun-safety groups, Everytown for Gun Safety and Moms Demand Action. Another 660 children are hospitalized annually.

The United States has one of the highest rates of accidental shootings by children in the world, and experts say the tally is likely even higher. Police and medical examiners misclassify as many as half as homicides, suicides or cause unknown, researchers say.

The statistics also reflect only incidents in which children ages 14 and younger were shot. Dozens more cases arise each year in which children unintentionally shoot adults.

One of the most recent — one that has gained national attention — is the case of a 9-year-old girl who fatally shot her firearms instructor with an Uzi at an Arizona gun range. The instructor, 39-year-old Charles Vacca, was shot in the head and flown to University Medical Center, where he died. The girl had taken a shuttle with her parents and siblings Aug. 25 from Las Vegas to the gun range about 60 miles south.

The girl watched her father shoot the Uzi, then took her turn. The range allowed children as young as 8 to fire submachine guns, although the owner since has said the policy is under review.

Now Vacca’s death has prompted a national debate about children and firearms, one that lands squarely in Las Vegas’ backyard. Which raises the question: Are children and guns a deadly mix?

Anti-gun advocates are quick to say yes. But even people who put pistols and rifles in the hands of their young children say some guns should be off limits.

“A 9-year-old and an Uzi — those probably shouldn’t go in the same sentence,” said hunter Cody Dorman, a concealed-carry permit holder and father of three young boys whom he plans to teach to shoot. “That, to me, is rather unbelievable.”

• • •

Most weekends, while other families sleep in or flip pancakes, Jeff and his children head to the Clark County Shooting Complex. They like to get there early, usually by 8 a.m., while the range still is cool and uncrowded.

The family has been coming every weekend, barring the occasional martial arts tournament, for four years. At first, it was just Jeff and his son Tyler, 13. But 9-year-old McKenna joined in two years ago, once she met the park’s minimum shooting age, 7.

Youth Gun Safety

Jeff (last name withheld) poses with his daughter McKenna, 9, and his son Tyler, 13, in the desert near Summerlin Sunday, Aug. 31, 2014. Launch slideshow »

Jeff’s wife, Jo-Anna, and oldest daughter Aubrey, 17, also shoot but don’t come regularly. The family asked that their last name not be used; they worried someone might target them for a break-in or robbery. “It’s almost like giving them a road map to a stash of free firearms,” Jeff said.

On a recent Sunday, McKenna, clad in bedazzled blue jeans, a pink T-shirt and matching pink shooting earmuffs, sidled up to her father at a shooting table that held three handguns, magazines and bullets.

Jeff leaned in behind McKenna as she raised her weapon of choice, a Ruger SR22 pistol, and fired a string of shots into the bull’s-eye ahead.

“Nice job! Now raise your right hand up a little,” Jeff said, demonstrating how to shoot against the wind. “Let’s take a couple more shots.”

Though Jeff grew up around guns, he didn’t think about buying one or teaching his children to shoot until about four years ago, when a series of violent crimes in their neighborhood and an accidental shooting by children playing with a handgun prompted him to reconsider.

Jeff said that although he and his wife didn’t make the decision lightly, they believe teaching their children to shoot, rather than simply lecturing them about what to do if they find a gun, imparts a level of respect for weapons that the kids otherwise might not have.

“They need to understand that pulling the trigger is an action that can’t be undone,” Jeff said.

“Before I learned, if my friends and I had found a gun, we probably would’ve messed around with it, even though we knew we weren’t supposed to,” Tyler said. “Now, that’s something I would never do in a million years.”

The Sunday morning target practice has evolved into bonding time. Jeff and his children usually follow gun shooting with an hour at the archery range before grabbing lunch on the way home.

McKenna said she thought learning how to shoot would be fun, but it has turned out to be hard work. Two years in, she remains cautious and almost shy around guns.

Dad is fine with that.

“I couldn’t believe that instructor let that little girl handle that weapon,” Jeff said of the 9-year-old with the Uzi. “It was a judgment call. Anyone who handles guns knows that wasn’t appropriate. I certainly wouldn’t let my daughter.”

“She was just too young,” Alan, a shooter in the next lane, piped up. “I mean, even guys like us can’t necessarily handle a gun like that.”

Alan also grew up shooting guns (and didn’t want his last name used) and taught his own daughter on a .22 pistol when she was 12.

“We did it so she wouldn’t fear guns,” he said. “We wanted to show her that guns are not a bad thing, if you’re trying to defend yourself.”

Still, he believes children should train with low-caliber weapons until they are 18. Alan opposes any government regulation of minors and firearm use, but both he and Jeff agree that recreational gun ranges should have more standardized rules and regulations, particularly when it comes to instructor training and certification.

“A lot of these places offer the ‘gun experience,’ ” Jeff said. “But the thing is, you need to respect and understand the gun before you can experience it.”

• • •

Firearms expert Bob Irwin, who has owned and operated the Gun Store in Las Vegas for 25 years, said children come in every day to shoot.

“It’s a family environment,” he said. “We see families literally all day. On a busy weekend, there’s hardly a moment there isn’t at least one child somewhere on the range.”

Irwin said children and tweens are particularly drawn to the semiautomatic weapons they see in video games and movies.

“We market to what customers want, so it’s not unusual that kids and tweens with video games go for machine guns — Uzis and MP5s, which are the German submachine guns carried by SWAT teams and the military,” he said.

The Gun Store has no age restrictions for who can shoot guns. Irwin recalled a 5-year-old taking aim. His staff uses discretion to determine what is appropriate for customers’ size and emotional maturity.

Irwin sees no problem with a 9-year-old shooting a semiautomatic weapon, as long as proper instructor protocol is followed. But he said that didn’t appear to be the case in the Arizona incident, based on video he saw.

At the Gun Store, range masters essentially hold the gun for shooters of any age firing semiautomatic weapons. The shooters merely pull the trigger.

“It’s sort of theater, but we’re holding it the whole time, because that’s what’s safe,” he said. “I can presume most companies do it that way, but that’s not what I saw in the video.”

Irwin said the gun in the video appears to be a Micro Uzi, a smaller, lighter version of the Uzi that’s significantly more difficult to control.

“If it was that size, it fires 1,100 rounds per minute,” Irwin said. “You have no time to react. If that was the case, there’s no way I would’ve let her use that, even with proper instruction. We don’t rent those out to anyone. ”

It’s too early to tell what the impact of last month’s incident will be, but Irwin is concerned about hasty regulatory action that could result.

• • •

Federal law prohibits anyone under 18 from owning firearms, but there’s no federal law that restricts minors from shooting. State laws are more nebulous.

Twenty-eight states, including Nevada, and the District of Columbia have child access prevention laws that can hold adults responsible and criminally liable for shooting accidents. The bite of the laws varies.

California, Washington, D.C., Massachusetts and Minnesota have the strictest regulations. Adults can be charged with a felony or misdemeanor if a child “may” or “is likely to” access a carelessly stored gun. Charges can be brought even in cases where nobody is injured or killed.

Nevada falls on the other end of the spectrum, with 13 other states. Here, adults can be charged only if an owner intentionally, knowingly or recklessly gives a gun to a child.

Landing in the middle, 11 states allow charges if a child accesses a carelessly stored gun, while 22 states have no child access laws at all.

Irwin said he knows of only two instances in which children were involved in shootings at gun ranges — the Arizona case and a 2008 incident in which an 8-year-old Connecticut boy shot himself with an Uzi at a Massachusetts gun show. Connecticut since passed a law prohibiting anyone under 16 from shooting automatic weapons at gun ranges.

Irwin argues that federally imposed age restrictions for gun ranges won’t make the industry any safer.

“Many more children die in swimming pools and car wrecks each year,” he said. “You’re dealing with one child in my industry, and we’re going to regulate (age) because of that? It makes no sense at all.”

What could make the industry safer, he said, is regulating instructor training. Arizona, for example, doesn’t require gun range employees to be certified as firearms instructors. Vacca was described by his range’s owner as being “very well trained” and having “a long military career,” but he was not certified by the National Rifle Association.

Irwin requires his employees to undergo 20 hours of training at the Gun Store, in addition to having NRA instructor certification. But that’s his choice, not Nevada law.

• • •

Most gun-safety advocates agree that parents need to exercise better judgment when it comes to letting their children fire weapons. But they also say states need to institute stronger laws.

“We believe that weapons designed for war do not belong in the hands of children — or adults, for that matter,” said Po Murray, chairwoman of the Newtown Action Alliance, a gun law advocacy group founded in the wake of the Sandy Hook mass shooting.

Josh Sugarmann, executive director of the Violence Policy Center, called the Arizona incident an “only-in-America story.” In other countries, he said, such a tragedy would spur the ban of automatic weapons and ignite serious conversations about children and guns. But despite thousands of such incidents in America, that hasn’t happened.

The gun lobby has been too powerful, successfully arguing that children benefit from exposure to and familiarity with firearms, Sugarmann said.

He believes that’s a logical fallacy.

“We don’t try to teach them responsibility by (encouraging) smoking cigarettes or drinking alcohol when they’re children,” Sugarmann said.

Not all gun-safety organizations share such a black-and-white view about the intersection of children and firearms.

The Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence advocates for tougher child access prevention laws, especially for automatic weapons, but organizers don’t go so far as to suggest children and teens shouldn’t be allowed to hunt with their parents.

“We are advocating bringing a lot of common sense to the table when people are engaging in those activities,” said Michael McLively, a lawyer for the group. “It’s almost like safe sex. If you know they’re going to have access to it, you might as well teach them safety.”

Death spurs family to launch gun-safety foundation

Eddie Eagle Gunsafe Program recommendations

• Parents should teach children to do the following if they see a gun:

1. Stop

2. Don’t touch

3. Leave the area

4. Tell an adult

Experts recommend parents repeat the lesson frequently so children remember the process.

There’s no specific age to start talking to your kids about guns, but the NRA suggests you introduce the subject when he or she begins to show an interest in firearms. That interest could be sparked by family members or friends, toys, television shows, movies or video games.

Talking openly and honestly about gun safety typically is more effective than just ordering your child to stay out of the gun closet, because that could backfire and stimulate the child’s natural curiosity to investigate further, experts say.

Explain the difference between real guns and toy guns. Do not assume your child knows the difference between being “killed” in a video game, where characters come back to life, and the reality of gun violence.

• For children being taught to shoot, teach the following rules:

1. Always keep the gun pointed in a safe direction.

2. Always keep your finger off the trigger until ready to shoot. When holding a gun, rest your trigger finger outside the trigger guard alongside the gun.

3. Always keep the gun unloaded until ready to use. Demonstrate to your child how to check if a gun is loaded and where the safety mechanism is located.

• For gun owners:

Store guns so they are not accessible to children. Gun shops sell a variety of safes, cases and other security devices.

It is the gun owner’s legal duty to take reasonable steps to deny access by children and follow all laws regarding gun ownership and storage.

The National Rifle Association runs the gun-safety program. Parents can call 800-231-0752 or email [email protected] to request an Eddie Eagle kit that includes a student workbook and sticker and a parents’ guide to gun safety.

Jake and Darchel Mohler know firsthand the pain associated with an unintentional shooting. Their family of five became four last year.

On June 4, 2013, their 13-year-old daughter, Brooklynn Mae, died after being shot accidentally by her friend in a Las Vegas home.

It happened quickly: The friend, also 13, grabbed her father’s 9mm pistol from the top of a kitchen cabinet, unaware that it was loaded. While playing with it, a bullet discharged, piercing Brooklynn’s spine and lodging in her chest.

Jake Mohler, who was en route to pick up Brooklynn from her friend’s house, was first on the scene. His daughter, two days shy of finishing seventh grade, lay dying in his arms when medics arrived. “Once I actually saw where she was shot, I pretty much knew she was going to be paralyzed or I was going to lose her,” Mohler said.

Faced with unimaginable grief, the Mohlers realized they had two choices: fall apart completely or try to turn a negative into something positive. They chose the latter and, in January, launched the Brooklynn Mae Mohler Foundation to spread gun-safety awareness.

“We’re gun owners,” Darchel Mohler said. “We’re not anti-gun at all.”

But they stridently believe that guns should be locked in safes, inaccessible to children regardless of their familiarity or training with weapons.

The Mohlers don’t blame their daughter’s friend for the shooting. The girl’s parents should have known children are inherently curious and kept their weapon secured, the Mohlers said.

A Harvard survey of children in gun-owning homes found more than 70 percent under age 10 knew where their parents stored their guns, and 36 percent reported handling the weapons.

The Mohlers now work to teach others about gun safety. They implore parents to ask other parents a crucial question when allowing their children to play at a friend’s house: Are there unsecured firearms in the home?

“My daughter wasn’t in her environment,” Darchel Mohler said. “You can control your environment as much as you want.”

Wearing pink shirts to honor Brooklynn, the Mohlers and their army of supporters have become the ambassadors of smart and safe gun ownership, sharing Brooklynn’s story with people around the world. It’s what keeps them fighting through the grief of losing their middle child — a girl who was a natural leader, animal lover and onetime class president.

News about unintentional shootings involving children strikes a nerve in the couple. So do parents who brush off the idea of keeping guns secure because they say they’ve taught their children to stay away.

“I say (to parents): If something happens, this is your fault,” Jake Mohler said.

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