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Agency comes out with safety recommendations follow shooting involving girl, 9, at gun range

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FLAGSTAFF, Arizona — The state's workplace safety agency has issued several recommendations that it says could help prevent accidental shootings like the one at a northwestern Arizona shooting range last year involving a 9-year-old girl using an Uzi.

Charles Joseph Vacca died in August of a gunshot wound to the head after he stepped back to let the New Jersey girl hold the fully automatic machine gun by herself. The gun's recoil wrenched its barrel upward, and a bullet hit him in the head, killing him.

An investigation by the Arizona Division of Occupational Safety and Health of the outdoor shooting range in White Hills found no serious violations. But the agency recommended having a range-safety officer on site, limiting weapons selections for certain shooters and ensuring shooters are comfortable with weapons before they are placed on automatic.

A safety officer isn't required, but the agency said that person could have pointed out that Vacca was out of position when instructing the girl and called to cease fire at the range. The state agency said Vacca should have been standing completely behind the girl, rather than to her side, and should not have had his hand below the magazine so that he could prevent the gun from rising when she fired.

Some of the recommendations already are in place at the private shooting range, about 60 miles south of Las Vegas. Children now must be at least 12 years old or five feet tall to handle a variety of semi-automatic rifles and machines guns, but the range coaches have discretion based on the shooter's experience, the state agency's report noted.

Sam Scarmardo, who operates the outdoor range in the desert, declined to comment Tuesday. He previously has said the girl's parents had signed waivers saying they understood the rules and were standing nearby, video-recording their daughter, when the accident happened.

Prosecutors declined to file charges, saying Vacca was the most culpable.

Regulations at shooting ranges around Arizona vary. Some do not rent automatic weapons and have no age limits, while others leave it up to range instructors.

Rep. Sonny Borrelli, a retired Marine who represents Lake Havasu City, said he doesn't believe state regulations are needed.

"That person that was there that was accidentally killed was a qualified individual," Borrelli said. "I'd like to see the industry come together and come up with their set of standards because they actually know the industry better than a lot of these legislators around here."

In a meeting of the Industrial Commission earlier this month where the Arizona Division of Occupational Safety and Health presented its findings, commission member Michael Sanders said the focus at the gun range appeared to be on recreation instead of safety.

The stop at the shooting range was set up by a Las Vegas tour company. Another range coach who was working that day, Ross Miller, told the state agency that he voiced his concerns to the tour driver that the mini Uzi was not appropriate for the 9-year-old girl but was told it was not his call.

The girl fired five shots from a 9 mm pistol before firing a single shot with the Uzi on the semi-automatic setting, although the policy at the range was to allow at least two shots, the state agency's report said. Vacca then switched the Uzi to automatic and said "all right, full auto," without gauging whether she was comfortable, the state agency said.

"Allowing a shooter to fire two rounds on semi-automatic does not prepare an inexperienced shooter for firing the weapon on automatic," the report said.

Range coaches now have the final say on what weapons are appropriate for customers, Scarmardo told the state agency.


Associated Press Writer Bob Christie in Phoenix contributed to this report.

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