The case for safety in US gun debate

Although US law prohibits the possession of handguns by anyone under 18, exceptions are made for activities including employment, ranching, target practice and hunting.

MR David Prince throws children's birthday parties with a twist. While they include the usual food, drinks and decorations, there are no clowns or craft lessons.

Instead, after the candles are blown out, children aged eight or older are taught how to shoot guns at his Eagle Gun Range.

Mr Prince, who is from Lewisville, Texas, has been organising such parties since 2012, and says he gets eight to 10 bookings a year.

When asked why he decided to offer these party packages, he says: "To show them (children) there is a difference between real guns and toys. To demonstrate proper respect for them. To teach gun safety."

The issue of children using guns is now sparking fierce debate in the US after a nine-year-old accidentally shot her instructor with a military-grade sub-machine gun. Yet, the likes of Mr Prince and other parents argue it is actually safer to teach children to shoot.

Such parents are often hunters who believe that it is impossible to keep guns away from the children, so they seek to educate the young ones about guns early.

Mrs Marti Stonecither, a 33-year-old housewife who lives in Arizona, says her two children aged seven and 11 started handling guns when they were only four years old.

"We have firearms in the home and are active hunters," she said. "We needed to explain what firearms are and talk to them about safety rules."

Today, her 11-year-old goes hunting with her in the field.

Although federal law prohibits the possession of handguns by anyone under 18, exceptions are made for activities including employment, ranching, farming, target practice and hunting.

The incident in Arizona was perfectly legal, says Ms Laura Cutilletta, an attorney at the Law Centre to Prevent Gun Violence.

Gun experts are adamant that this week's incident does not warrant any change in gun laws, arguing it was simply a mistake by the instructor Charles Vaca.

Mr Steven Howard from American Firearms and Munitions Consulting believes that nine-year-olds can handle sub-machine guns if properly taught.

"He died because he was stupid," says Mr Howard, a former federal agent, of Mr Vaca.

"He gave a child an Uzi which has a high rate of fire and the centre of gravity is far back, so it's difficult to control."

US data shows that more than 1.69 million children aged 18 and under are living in homes with loaded and unlocked firearms, while firearm injuries are the cause of death of 18 children and young adults aged 24 and under in the US each day.

Mr Howard believes children get hurt by guns because their parents don't introduce them to the weapons soon enough.

"These parents say, 'don't you ever touch that gun.' That works real great," he quips.

Among gun opponents, the idea that children should be taught to use heavy weaponry is ludicrous. Says Mr Ladd Everitt from the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence: "At the ranges, if children are going to shoot fully automatic guns, there should be an age requirement on it. I think 18 would be more reasonable."

He adds that some education on gun safety is probably useful but it is far from being the safest option.

"We would agree that the safest home is a home without a gun in it," Mr Everitt says.

But with the powerful gun lobby in the United States, few are hopeful that proper restrictions will ever be put in place.

Law professor Adam Winkler says the tragedy in Arizona revealed that gun ranges need to have tougher rules for minors.

"In a country with many hunters, minors do use guns. Like everyone else who possesses a gun, they should learn to use guns safely on gun ranges.

"But there is no reason for a minor to be shooting an automatic weapon like an Uzi," he says.

"This type of tragedy can be prevented by barring minors from possessing guns. However, such a law is unlikely to be adopted in the US."

This article was first published on August 30, 2014.
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