I’ve had a number of phone calls and emails about this tragic incident asking questions about what happened, should it have been prevented and the like. First off I have no access to any information that has not been reported by the media. I have nothing but a lifetime of experience teaching firearms skills, on which to base the following opinions.
This week at a shooting range in Arizona, a nine-year-old girl shot the instructor she was working with in the head with an Uzi sub machine gun. This has sparked debate on gun culture, how old is old enough to shoot, at what point is a submachine gun to be introduced, range procedures and a litany of other issues. From what we know so far, there is some room for improvement. Here are the general questions people seem to be interested it.
Should a nine-year-old shoot an Uzi?
First off the Mac 10/11(AKA Uzi) has very limited application in the tactical realm. Other than for entertainment or very close range ambushes, they are generally useless. The blow back system creates substantially more muzzle climb then other sub-guns making them very difficult to control. There are far more controllable sub-guns out there (like the MP5) which would be a more suitable starting point as an introduction to sub-guns. For someone with limited or no experience, that is one of the last guns I would choose.
That said, there are seven year olds out there with the firearms experience, maturity and physical strength to control an Uzi. Age is largely irrelevant in shooting, and experience, strength and maturity are much better gauges to measure what any person can handle. We flock to age because it’s easy to quantify, but it is a really crappy indicator. So can a nine-year-old-girl handle an Uzi safely… Maybe. Certainly yes in some cases, but generally probably not the best choice of firearm for a nine-year-old girl with little experience. Read Teaching Children to Shoot for more ideas on how to safely and effectively introduce children to firearms.
Were the Range Procedures adequate?
In reading the comments of the owner, there are a few things that indicate to me there are some gaps. First the instructor went from single shot to full auto on a fully loaded magazine. A far safer procedure would be to load a magazine with 2, 3, 4, and 5 rounds to give the shooter a bit of experience controlling muzzle climb in a progressive manner. Next would be to give the shooter experience stopping firing when muzzle climb causes the gun to come off target. Give them a few 5 round magazines and have them attempt to stop at 2 – 3 rounds (the appropriate method of employment) on their own. At that point a full magazine can be safely introduced. Clearly that procedure (and there many other safe ways to do it), does not exist at the range as the owner indicated “all policies and procedures were followed”.
Was the instructor qualified?
The range owner stated that Charlie Vacca (the instructor who was killed) was qualified because “he had served in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan”, was in the Army and a member of the reserves. This indicates to me that the range owner does not really know what it means to be a qualified instructor. Additionally, it appears they have no good process in place to screen and train the people they hire. The reality is that most military and law enforcement personnel are not qualified instructors. You learn to be an instructor by first becoming proficient, then by coaching under the supervision of other more experienced instructors, and finally by teaching on your own. Most of us continue to take courses from other instructors just to stay on top things. Range time and experience matter more than a NRA stamped piece of paper, but that piece of paper is better than nothing. According to the NRA, he was not an NRA instructor.
Teaching Experience Matters!
If you spend time on a range, you will see people do dangerous things. As you start teaching you start to key in on the precursors to people doing dangerous things. Initially you can react to minimize the danger. After a while, you can see it coming and head it off before it happens. When you can do that with out really thinking about it, you are ready to teach independently. I can’t tell you when that time occurs for an instructor. What I can tell you is that it is not hard to identify the instructors who have the experience to do so, from those who do not. I don’t like to to speak ill of the dead, but in this case, from the video I watched, this looks entirely predictable.
Could that happen here at Aegis Academy?
First, we don’t do half hour fun shoots, because although shooting can be a great time, in order for it to be fun and safe, you need more information than we can impart in 30 minutes. Our shortest class is a little over four hours. There are ways to do shorter introductions to firearms safely… But the less the shooter knows, the greater the risk.
Second, all of the staff at Aegis Academy has a minimum of ten years of Law Enforcement or Military service in Special Operations or SWAT units where range time was extensive. They have to have at least two years of instructor time with a department or agency before they can even be considered for employment. Lastly, everyone who works here must complete the instructor development program, which is an additional 5 days run by the Staff. Admittedly that certainly exceeds the minimum requirements to be a safe firearms instructor, but that is the minimum for our team.
Third, we have detailed written range procedures for each and every drill we have clients shoot. The range masters have the latitude to modify those drills to overcome individual training limitations as necessary. The process of writing up the procedures and drills, placing them into a binder and teaching the staff how to teach the drills in the instructor course is what makes the procedures effective. Writing it down doesn’t make you safe, but it’s a good place to start. It’s in teaching how and why the procedures apply that creates a safe environment.
So could it happen here? Despite all of the above – Yes, a client could shoot an instructor in the head at Aegis Academy. Saying anything else would be arrogant. We reduce that risk to as close to zero as we can, but when you’re dealing with a firearm, your risk is never zero.
An Instructor is dead, a girl’s life is forever changed
My sympathy goes out to the family of Charlie Vacca. My sympathy goes out to the girl who will undoubtedly suffer from the trauma she is experiencing over this event. Lastly, my sympathy goes out to her parents who will second guess this decision for the rest of their lives. Let us not forget, in pointing fingers and laying blame, that this was a tragic event that happened to what are probably very well meaning people. I never want to see anyone needlessly injured or killed, nor suffer the impact of doing so – with out good reason.
In closing, there are safe, effective and entertaining ways to learn to use firearms. This was not an example of that. The staff is internally reviewing the event as a group to see if there are some lessons we can take away. We prefer to learn from the mistakes of others. Whether you train here or elsewhere, asking what happened and how your instructor feels about it is both a fair question, and will give you some insight in how that person or company thinks and acts. Trust your gut and don’t be afraid to walk away if you don’t feel safe!
Have fun, but stay safe!
Chris White – Range Master
Chris White is 20-year veteran of the United States Navy (SEAL Teams) where he retired as a Chief (SO7). He has multiple combat tours and was assigned to three different SEAL teams as well as Naval Special Warfare Development Group during his active duty service. His key billets include: Assault Team leader, Platoon Chief and Platoon LPO at Development Group. He spent 6 years in instructor and training assignments during his career. Since his retirement, he has worked as an instructor and contracted operator at numerous high threat security providers in the Middle East and Africa. He continues to deploy in support of contingency operations and high threat protective details spending approximately 120 days a year overseas. He holds an extensive list of Department of Defense and Special Operations Command certifications and qualifications.
First Published at Aegis Academy