Tots on the Range

09.10.14 9:55 AM ET

Where Kids as Young as 5 Learn to Shoot Automatic Weapons

After a 9-year-old accidentally killed an Arizona shooting instructor, we surveyed 58 gun ranges across the country about age limits and what kinds of guns kids can shoot. The results may shock you.

The accidental shooting death of a firearms instructor by a 9-year-old girl operating a fully automatic Uzi at a shooting range in White Hills, Arizona, raised a number of questions about children and firearms. Is a gun range any place for children in the first place? And should a child so young have access to such a powerful weapon?

In the wake of the August accident, gun enthusiasts were quick to claim that accidents on gun ranges are rare.

But in fact, injuries and deaths at gun ranges are incredibly common. Since the incident with the 9-year-old that attracted so much media attention, there have been at least five shootings at gun ranges—three accidental and two intentional—that resulted in three deaths and three injuries. In the last two weeks alone, a 65-year-old man accidentally shot and killed himself at a Massachusetts range; a 67-year-old man accidentally shot himself in the hand at a Maine range; Timothy Ramsuer Jr., 29, committed suicide with a gunshot to the head in front of witnesses at a Virginia range; two men were shot and injured at a Florida range during a failed attempt to unjam a 9-millimeter semiautomatic handgun; and a Georgia man fled to a gun range where he shot and killed himself after fatally stabbing his ex-wife.

Federal law prohibits children under 18 years of age from purchasing guns, but ownership and operation are different matters. For children under the supervision of parents, there are almost no regulations on when or what they can shoot.

The death of 8-year-old Christopher Bizilj, who accidentally shot and killed himself while firing an Uzi submachine gun at a Massachusetts gun show in 2008, prompted his home state of Connecticut to enact a law prohibiting the sale or transfer of a machine gun to anyone under the age of 16, including the temporary transfer for use in target shooting, on a shooting range, or for “any other purpose.”

According to Jon Griffin, a policy specialist at The National Conference of State Legislatures, “no states have pending legislation on this, but Mississippi introduced a bill in 2013 (SB 2765) that would have enacted a prohibition similar to Connecticut’s. The bill did not pass.” There have been reports that an Arizona lawmaker plans to introduce a similar bill in the next session.

Laura Cutilletta, a senior staff attorney at The Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, didn’t know of any related laws, but noted, “We haven’t done a 50-state analysis of firing range laws, so there may be others.”

That’s not to say a lack of state law means there is no regulation, or that young children are lining up at gun ranges to fire fully automatic weapons. Rules are in place at most ranges—but they are self-imposed and rely more on the discretion of the man behind the counter or the child’s parent than any law.

To get an idea of policies throughout the country, we surveyed 58 ranges similar to the Last Stop outdoor shooting range where the most recent accident involving a child occurred. We used FindTheBest’s shooting range directory, then limited our pool to ranges that rented fully automatic machine guns. We then called the ranges on our list and asked two questions: “How old do you have to be to shoot?” and “Are there restrictions on what kind of gun kids can shoot?” For two of the ranges on our list that we were unable to reach by phone, we used information from their websites.

INTERACTIVE: Hover over markers for more from each range on their age and firearm restrictions for children.

In the most popular response, 21 of the ranges we surveyed reported no age restriction in order to shoot as long as a parent was present. That’s not to imply a parent could arm a 2-year-old with an Uzi on these ranges. Often, the age requirement was replaced by an experience requirement. Almost every range told me some version of “it depends on the child.” As for ranges that did have a specific age requirement, 13 of them reported a condition that shooters must be 8 years old, and eight ranges said shooters had to be 12 years old. Two ranges said that children as young as 5 years old would be able to shoot.

Some of the ranges gave a height requirement in lieu of an age cutoff. At Shooters Edge, in Piney Flats, Tennessee, (where a safety instructor was accidentally shot in the chest in 2011), the attendant said, “The cutoff is usually 8, but it depends. They need to be able to see over the bench.”

When it came to the type of gun kids would be able to shoot once they got there, the answers varied wildly. Almost every range stressed safety and experience. And several stated outright that children would not be permitted to shoot automatic weapons. At Nardis gun club in San Antonio, Texas, where kids have to be 8 years old to shoot, I was told, “They will not be shooting a machine gun, I can tell you that.” A representative for Burtzland Outfitters in Alliance, Ohio, said, “I don’t want to give him anything he can kill himself with.” At Sam’s Shooters Emporium in Lake Havasu City, Arizona, a child must be 12 years old to operate a machine gun.

Others put the onus on the parent. LAX Firing Range in Los Angeles told me, “It’s your child, ma'am.” Though most had no specific restrictions, almost all suggested a young or inexperienced shooter should start with a .22 rifle, maybe a pistol. Still there were a few that left the choice of firearm to the parent’s discretion. Bullet Hole Shooting Complex in San Antonio, Texas, said, “As long as a parent is there, they can shoot whatever you have,” and Allen Arms Indoor Range in Greenville, South Carolina, offered children with a parent the opportunity to shoot “anything up to” a .50 caliber machine gun.

Most of the ranges surveyed repeatedly stressed safety on the phone. Of course, as careful as gun ranges may be, and regardless of the safety lessons gun experts say they can impart, sites where the sole purpose is to practice the use of deadly weapons can be dangerous.

A simple Internet search shows that both accidents and suicides are common at many of the gun ranges included in our survey, all of which allowed children.