So today in my email, I was tagged by several people interested in my feedback regarding Monday’s death of Charles Vecca, 39, of White Hills, Arizona and firearms instructor at Last Stop gun range. Mr. Vecca was killed when a 9-year old girl accidentally shot him during a tourist excursion to a local gun range. For context I moonlight as an occasional weapons instructor myself; and have been around firearms throughout my life, both in the military and prior. I have written about the various personalities on public gun ranges I and various personalities on public gun ranges II.
Up front, I want to say that this is a sad tragedy, and we should all remember it foremost. As an instructor he clearly enjoyed an interest in firearms, and held a strong belief in the 2nd Amendment. So much so that he wanted to spread that enjoyment to anyone willing to open him or herself to the experience. And sadly, now a young girl will have a significant amount of emotional and mental issues in dealing with what happened, and a family is without its patriarch. So regardless of how we evaluate this situation, always remember this was a terrible gun-related accident and an example of the need to stress gun safety and education.
Unfortunately, in the (roughly) 30-second video I saw posted to the Internet by the Mohave County Sheriff’s Office and eyewitness statements, the fault ultimately lies foremost the instructor and then lastly with the vendor. This is not an admonishment of gun rights in America, nor a situation that warrants increased gun regulations.
Mr. Vecca had been an employee at Last Stop for some time. He also had a long-standing and honorable military career, one in which gave him comfort on a variety of firearms. But in that instant, the video clearly shows the fatal flaw. Each day, everywhere you go, no matter what you do, you should always be conducting a Risk Assessment (RA) on what you are about to attempt and the setting in which you are going to attempt it. This RA will allow you to identify risks, and the measures needed to mitigate those risks.
And in this instance, Mr. Vecca failed to adequately identify that his shooter, a yet unidentified 9-year old girl vacationing in Las Vegas with her New Jersey family, had little or no experience with firearms, and that the fully automatic, Israeli made Uzi was notorious for muzzle rise (i.e. in the full auto mode as the bullets pour out of the barrel the weapon’s front end will gradually rise up from recoil if the shooter doesn’t keep it down). Adding to an incorrect RA, Mr. Vecca placed his position as the Range Safety squared 90-degrees to the shooter’s side and almost adjacent to the weapon system itself. In the video his head is right over her shoulder as he stands to her side. There is no attempt to “shadow” the girl with his arms and support her posture at the elbows, or to support the back. The girl does well, handling the recoil and noise of the Uzi in single-shot. Shortly thereafter Mr. Vecca tells her to switch the selector over to fully automatic. She lines up the shot and presses the trigger. In the video you can clearly see the Uzi leapt up completely out of her support hand while firing and pitched over her left shoulder (where Mr. Vecca is standing). She still retained control of the Uzi in her firing hand, with her finger on the trigger. And in that flash situation I’m sure the girl’s startle reflex kicked in and she squeezed the trigger yet again. The Uzi discharged and Mr. Vecca was struck once in the forehead, dying instantaneously. The local sherrif said Mr. Vecca just “dropped” and afterwards was transported to the local hospital where he was promounced dead.
Which brings me to my next point…
Before all the Mom’s Demand Action and Bloomberg types descend on this guy’s business – consider this; while an individual may continuously work around firearms, and have an extensive history with them, invariably once you lose focus accidents simply will happen. Sometimes they are fatal, hopefully most end up with just a loud bang and a pair of shorts that need to be changed. Sadly this isn’t the case.
Last Stop gun range is roughly some distance outside of Las Vegas along Route 93. Their seclusion enables them to promote their tourist-trap style gun range to fire anything from heavy 50 caliber machine guns to fully automatic small arms. They advocate education on firearms and stress their safety to the students. However this event also brings into question if children age 9 or younger should be handling weapons of considerable caliber/power. There is no age restriction in Arizona, so she filled out the prerequisite forms and went to fire her Uzi. And this is perhaps where the store’s due diligence and application of critical thinking failed to properly consider weapon proportionately to the individual. Many in the social media Twitterverse decried allowing such a young girl to fire the automatic Uzi, but supported her right to shoot any firearm when her age and experience warranted it. So while Mr. Vecca may have failed to conduct a personal RA, the vendor is as much at risk for not having a system of boundaries in place to ensure specific youths cannot access larger caliber weapons without direct oversight.
In the end, this is a scenario where there simply are no winners, only loosers. Range Safeties need to constantly be aware of their students, where best to stand in relation to their students, and how can they continue to provide safety for both student and staff. Personally I take the position directly behind a student by 2-3 feet and offset myself so that I can see the weapon cycling. I don’t care where their bullet is impacting, I don’t care how cool they look firing, my only concern is did you do it SAFE. As I said in the beginning, this isn’t a situation where cries of greater gun regulation are necessary. I feel that perhaps a dialogue with the gun culture itself would best give them the opportunity to clean up their own act, and perhaps get some folks back into remedial safety courses before going forward.