Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Friday, September 05, 2014

The Nine Year Old and the Uzi

If you spend time on social media, it's been hard to miss over the last couple weeks the story about the nine-year-old girl whose parents took her to a shooting range outside Las Vegas where she was allowed to shoot an fully automatic Uzi machine pistol, which she then lost control of and accidentally shot (fatally) her instructor. Everyone seems sure this Says Something About America, and there've been endless articles, posts and tweets trying to get at exactly what that is.

Less exploitive than some is this piece from Time which seeks to compare this event to the appalling situation a while back in which a single mom was thrown in jail for allowing her similarly nine year old daughter to play at a public part while the mother was working her shift at McDonalds. However, less exploitive than some is a low bar in a media-wide outrage fest and at several levels the piece is rather ill conceived, starting with its opening:
You should be absolutely terrified that a 9-year-old’s constitutional right to fire an Uzi trumps your right to decide at what age your kids can play at the park unsupervised.
For starters: a nine year old does not have a constitutional right to fire an Uzi. Period. End of story.

A nine year old cannot legally buy any kind of gun or ammunition, and Uzis (at least, any one like this which is capable of fully automatic fire) are incredibly highly regulated. Owning a machine gun requires a special license which involves extra background checks and inspections of how you store the weapon. Very few are allowed onto the civilian market at all. That's why if people shoot them at all, they do so at supervised shooting ranges which have gone through all the legal hoops to license the weapons, and then allow you to try them for a steep rental fee.As a result, fully automatic weapons are virtually never found in use by criminals at this point in the US. They are an example of a class of weapons which has become virtually absent from the crime seen due to long term regulation (since the 1930s) and also the fact that they're impractical and expensive for civilians to shoot. So not only does a nine year old not have a right to fire an Uzi, but for eight years courts have upheld very severe legal restrictions on fully automatic guns in general, indicating that no one else really has a constitutional right to fire and Uzi either. This story has proved cathartic to some gun control advocates who simply love a story which reinforces their "guns are scary and evil!!!" instincts, but honestly, this is not a story that relates much to gun control one way or the other.

Another thing that struck me about the Time article is the redemptive power which people increasingly put, in our current society, in the idea of throwing someone in jail. It says:
Arizona police officials have said no charges will be filed or arrests made. The Mohave County Sheriff’s Office concluded the incident was an “industrial accident,” and have contacted the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to investigate, according to published reports.

Let’s compare that to a story from earlier this summer, regarding a different 9-year-old, one in South Carolina.

Debra Harrell is a working mother who faces a common problem for parents when school lets out for the summer: finding affordable child care. The McDonald’s employee couldn’t afford to have someone watch her 9-year-old daughter, so the girl was playing on her laptop in the restaurant during her mother’s shifts. However, when that laptop was stolen from their home, Harrell armed her daughter with a cell phone in case of an emergency and let her go unsupervised to an area playground. Another parent noticed the girl there alone and contacted the police, at which point Harrell was arrested and charged with child neglect. If convicted, she faces up to 10 years behind bars.

I agree that we live in a crazy world when a majority of Americans believe it should be illegal to allow your nine year old to play outside unsupervised, and a scary number still say the same about twelve year olds. I don't think that mother in South Carolina should have been jailed. Indeed, I think one of the major problems in our society is that we make far too many things illegal. Which brings me back to the Time article, which seems to implicitly believe that someone should have gone to jail for the shooting accident with the Uzi in Arizona. Clearly, there were several people using very, very poor judgement which led to the accident. The shooting range had a minimum age of eight, and apparently didn't contemplate the fact that some of the guns they had available for tourists to shoot were much harder for a small person to control than others. The parents apparently assumed it was just fine for their nine year old to try shooting a machine pistol. The instructor (now dead) who should have known better if the parents didn't apparently also thought this was an okay idea.

In general, shooting ranges are very safe places. Your child is less likely to be injured (or injure someone) going to a shooting range than going to a swimming pool or playing some sport like soccer or football. However, in this case, several people who should have known better used bad judgement. One of them is now dead. Does it really make anything better if we as a society find someone to put in jail to make us feel better? Is there anyone here who acted with criminal intent? And yet there seems to be a deep sense in our society that if something bad happened someone ought to go to jail for it.

Do we need new laws in the wake of this shooting accident? I don't think that it would do any harm to restrict shooting ranges from allowing fully automatic weapons to be shot by anyone under some given age which tends to align with having a large enough physical structure to handle them. (14? 16?) However, it's important to realize that we're talking about an incredibly rare occurrence. If anything, this reminds me of the case which got a lot of discussion some years back where a seven-year-old girl died (along with her father and a flying instructor) while flying an airplane. Say what you will about whether letting a seven year old fly an airplane is a good idea, it's a sufficiently infrequent occurrence for there to be a desperate need to legislate about it. Similarly, shooting ranges honestly do not want to have their instructors accidentally shot. In general, they are very, very good at enforcing safety. One hopes that people will have learned a few lessons from this incident (if they're not too busy fending off attacks from anti-gunner on "our disturbingly warped gun culture") and will adjust accordingly. And in all likelihood, that's about all it will take.


Brandon said...

It seems to be a problem with our culture that we don't want to trust to training and prudence rather than some method, rule, or formula -- and it's not even an especially reasonable quirk, since the formulas seem to backfire at least as often as trusting to people to think things through.

Anonymous said...

Well, what about the fact that an 18-year-old can go to war but can't legally drink a beer?

Darwin said...

Now that is just wrong.

Actually, I'd support a drinking age of 16.

Joseph Moore said...

What strikes me is how rapid a change this has been:

Before I was 9 - this would be back in the 60s - I would get a quarter from my mom, walk about 1/2 mile to local park, and swim all afternoon. Then walk home.

Starting when I was 5, my mom would occasionally send me to the store. This entailed walking a few blocks, crossing a number of streets including one busy intersection with a light and four lanes of traffic, getting stuff - usually a single item, a head of lettuce or something like that - paying for it, and carrying it home.

My mom did these things to teach me responsibility. It seems to have sort of worked.

She'd be thrown in jail today, no doubt.

In our own experience, our children walk themselves to school about a 1/2 mile away. Since they have a flexible schedule, they are sometimes walking to or from school during the day when no other children are about. AND - being little kids, they tend to dally - there's stuff to look at on any walk, or maybe a fantasy to work through as you wander.

Fortunately, our local cops are pretty sane - they have been called by people panicked to see kids walking on the sidewalks b y themselves when they should not be there. One cop even mentioned that there has been a single stranger abduction of a child in the 100 plus year history of our city.

There may be plenty wrong with a mom having to work while her 9 year old child is out for the summer, but having the kid spend the day at the park is not what's wrong here.

Joseph Moore said...

Correction: NOT been as single abduction...

Anonymous said...

Anonymous, 18-year-olds who are active duty military CAN drink legally.

Darwin said...


Your comment caused me to look it up.

Apparently US DoD policy is that military base drinking ages mirror those of the host country. So in Germany where the drinking age is lower, 18-year-old soldiers, sailors, Marines, etc., can legally drink. In the US a lower drinking age used to apply, but after lobbying in the '80s by MADD a new policy was put in place matching base drinking ages to state drinking ages, which are now all 21. So while on US soil military personnel are bound by the US drinking age.

Skywalker said...

When I read about the woman who let her kid play at the park while she worked and the resulting charges of child neglect and possible jail time, I was horrified. This woman needs help, a babysitter or a friend, and maybe a little understanding. Instead we've got legal fees, stress, probably her kid is in foster care, and possibly she'll go to jail. How does this help her or her kid? How can people be so stupid or so cruel?