“We Have a Voice” is an online petition started by the children of Charles Vacca, who was a firearms instructor killed by a nine-year-old girl who lost control of an Uzi submachine gun at an Arizona gun range. The petition calls on federal lawmakers to pass legislation on the subject of kids and assault weapons that is being sponsored by U.S. Congressman Ruben Gallego (D-AZ) and U.S. Senator Ed Markey (D-MA). The proposed legislation would prohibit powerful firearms in the hands of children.
On August 25, 2014, firearms instructor Charles Vacca lost his life on an Arizona gun range in White Hills, Arizona. Vacca was killed when a nine-year-old girl lost control of an Uzi machine gun. The incident was captured on a cell phone video, and it sparked a national discussion about young children and automatic weapons.
Following the incident, Charles Vacca’s children wrote a letter to the young girl involved in the incident, noting, “we wish you peace.” The kids’ statement reverberated around the world.
On the one-year anniversary of their father’s death, the children launched the “We Have a Voice” petition. Although the kids strongly believe in the Second Amendment, they also believe that children and assault weapons don’t mix.
The HEART Bill
The “We Have a Voice” movement gained the attention of U.S. Congressman Ruben Gallego (D-AZ) and U.S. Senator Ed Markey (D-MA). The two legislators have heard the calls of those who signed the petition and are sponsoring a law that would prohibit children from possessing or firing machine guns and assault weapons, including at shooting ranges and gun shows. The Gallego-Markey bill is called the Help End Assault Rifle Tragedies (HEART) Act.
Unfortunately, Charles Vacca was not the first person to lose his life to an Uzi being used by a child. In 2008, eight-year-old Christopher Bizilj was using an Uzi on a gun range in Massachusetts and lost his life. According to reports from Everytown for Gun Safety and Moms Demand Action, every week two children lose their lives to unintentional shootings.
Following is the text of the HEART Act:
(a) IN GENERAL.—Section 922 of title 18, United States Code, is amended by adding at the end the following:
‘‘(aa) It shall be unlawful for any person, in or affecting interstate or foreign commerce, to transfer, loan, or otherwise dispose of a machinegun or semiautomatic assault weapon to an individual, knowing or having reason able cause to believe that the individual has not attained 16 years of age, including the temporary transfer of a machine gun or semiautomatic assault weapon to such individual for use in target shooting or on a firing or shooting range or for any other purpose.’’
On August 25, 2014, at the Arizona Last Stop gun range, a nine-year-old girl lost control of a firing Uzi and killed gun instructor Charles Vacca. Vacca was 39 when the tragedy occurred. He had four children: his sons Christopher Vacca, 11, and Tylor Vacca, 14, and daughters Elizabeth Vacca, 15, and Ashley Moser, 19. Vacca was standing next to the girl when she squeezed the Uzi’s trigger. The recoil wrenched the Uzi upward, and shot Vacca in the head. Vacca was airlifted to a Las Vegas hospital; however, he died from the single shot to the head.
Devastation has surrounded both families that were involved in the incident. The family of the nine-year-old girl released a statement saying, “They are devastated by this accident that turned what was supposed to be a unique and brief excursion from their summer vacation into a life changing tragedy,” and continued, “Words cannot express the family’s sadness about the accidental shooting of Charles Vacca. They prayed day and night that he would survive his injury, and they continue to pray for his family during this terribly difficult time.”
Remarkably, the Vacca children have shown compassion to the nine-year-old girl, deciding to write her a letter. In the letter the children explain, “You’re only nine-years-old. We think about you. We are worried about you. We pray for you, and wish you peace. Our dad would want the same thing.”
On the one-year anniversary of the shooting, Vacca’s children launched the We Have a Voice initiative, which is an online petition to prevent children from using fully automatic weapons. This initiative is geared at building a coalition of legislators and community members to support the cause.
Gun Laws in Arizona and around the Nation
Following is an overview of the current gun laws in Arizona and around the country.
Arizona law states that any adult person who is not a “prohibited possessor”1 may openly carry a loaded firearm.2 A person must be 18 years of age to possess or openly carry a firearm.3
However, this age restriction does not apply to emancipated minors, minors accompanied by a parent, grandparent or guardian, a certified hunter safety instructor, a certified firearms safety instructor acting with the consent of the unemancipated person’s parent or guardian, or minors on private property owned or leased by the minor, the minor’s parent, grandparent or guardian.4 Additionally, Arizona does not currently have any assault weapons laws and minors may fire fully automatic assault weapons if they are in the presence of adult supervision.
Furthermore, the age restriction does not apply to 14, 15, 16 and 17 year olds who “engage in lawful hunting or shooting events or marksmanship practice at established ranges, engage in lawful transportation of an unloaded firearm for the purpose of lawful hunting, and engage in lawful transportation of an unloaded firearm between the hours of 5:00 a.m. and 10:00 p.m. for the purpose of shooting events or marksmanship practice.”5
Since passing S.B. 1108, Arizona residents age 21 or older are permitted to carry a concealed weapon without a permit.6 Residents may still obtain a permit issued by the Concealed Weapons Permit Unit of the Arizona Department of Public Safety,7 which would allow the person to carry in certain regulated locations and for purposes of reciprocity with other states.8 A person with a permit may carry a concealed weapon into a business serving alcohol for consumption on the premises as long as the licensee has not posted a sign in compliance with A.R.S. §4-229.9 However, both open carry and concealed weapons are prohibited at: polling places on election days, commercial nuclear & hydroelectric generating stations, military installations, Indian reservations, game preserves, national parks, correctional facilities, federal buildings, airports and on school grounds.10
At the federal level, there are no child access prevention laws. Federal law does address a minimum age of 21 for licensed firearm dealers to sell handguns,11 and a minimum age of18 for dealers to sell long guns.12 Unlicensed people (non-dealers) may sell long guns no matter what the age of the purchaser, but may not sell handguns to anyone under 18.13
The District of Columbia and 27 states have enacted child access and prevention laws, but most do not specifically include fully automatic weapons and many allow possession of a firearm if the minor is in the presence of adult supervision.14
Some states have prohibitions or proposed prohibitions on fully automatic weapons. Most recently, The Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence has joined California Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom in launching the Safety for ALL ballot initiative, which is a series of gun laws that will improve public safety.15 One of the five provisions on the ballot would be to prohibit possession of large-capacity military style guns. If this initiative passes, California would join New York, New Jersey, Hawaii and Washington, D.C. in banning the possession of military-style magazines.
Additionally, following the tragic death of Vacca, Arizona House of Representatives member Victoria Steele proposed a ban on allowing children under the age of 16 from using machine guns.16 In 2014, California senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer wrote the president of the National Shooting Sports Foundation asking them to help create polices prohibiting minors from shooting fully automatic weapons at gun ranges.17 In March 2015, house member of Louisiana Barbara Norton, introduced a bill to prohibit minors under the age of 12 from using Uzis.18 The bill did not pass.
Gun Death Statistics
In the U.S., the tragedy of gun deaths affect thousands of people each year, ranging from the victims to their families and community. From January to November, 2015, 11,045 people have died from gun violence. Of those deaths, 1,571 were accidental.
Although Charlie Vacca’s children are not advocating for legislation beyond fully automatic weapons in the hands of children, it’s worth noting that this is not the first incident to occur at a gun range or range-like environment. In 2008 in Massachusetts, eight-year-old Christopher Bizilj accidentally shot himself at a gun show while shooting an Uzi.2 In 2009, Marie Moore killed her son and then killed herself, with a gun rented at a Florida gun range.3 In 2010, twin sisters Candice and Kristin Hermeler shot themselves in an apparent suicide pact with guns rented from an Aurora, Colorado gun range.4 Kristin was killed, while Candice was not.5 In 2013, Eddie Ray Routh shot and killed two fellow military veterans at a gun range in Texas, including Navy Seal Chris Kyle, the soldier celebrated in the film American Sniper.6
As statistics show, children the age of 0-11 have been killed or injured by guns a total of 585 times in 2015 alone. This does not include the 2,162 deaths of teen’s age 12-17, and the 280 that have been killed or injured due to mass shootings in schools and other areas.7
A joint report titled Innocents Lost, from Everytown for Gun Safety and Moms Demand Action, claims that the number of children killed by unintentional shootings may be higher than the federal statistics show, and nearly two children are killed every week in unintentional shootings.
One study showed that in 12 of the states that enacted child access prevention laws, and in which those laws had been in effect for at least one year, unintentional firearm deaths fell by 23% among children under 15 years of age.8
Charles Vacca’s children believe it’s time for our community, legislators and concerned citizens to have a broad discussion about children’s access to fully automatic weapons. The only way that change is going to occur is with open and intelligent dialogue that will turn into action.
We Have a Voice is not about broad, widespread gun control; it’s about the limited situation of preventing young children shooting fully automatic weapons – period. Charlie and his children believe deeply in the Second Amendment. Their goal is simply to raise awareness and to try and keep fully automatic weapons out of the hands of small children.
The children of Charles Vacca believe that there are actions individuals and lawmakers can take to create a safer environment for everyone – all while preserving the Second Amendment protections in which they firmly believe. That is the genesis of the We Have a Voice petition. To become involved, please visit the We Have a Voice page and sign the petition.
Ariz. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 13-3101(A)(7)(a)-(g) (A prohibited possessor includes: a person who has been found to be a danger to themself or others, a person who has been found to have acute or grave disabilities pursuant to court order, who has been convicted of a felony and whose civil right to carry a gun has not been restored, who at time of possession is serving time in prison or a detention facility, who is on parole for domestic violence, or a felony offense, parole, community supervision, work furlough, home arrest, who is an undocumented alien or a nonimmigrant alien traveling with or without documentation in this state for business or pleasure or who is studying in this state and who maintains a foreign residence abroad, who has been found incompetent pursuant to rule 11, Arizona rules of criminal procedure and who is found guilty except insane).
2 Ariz. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 13-3111(A).
5 Ariz. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 13-3111(B)(1)-(4).
8 Ariz. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 4-229(A)(1).
9 Ariz. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 4-229(A)(1)-(3) (An Arizona Statute that states a person may carry a concealed handgun on the premises of a licensee who is an on-sale retailer unless the licensee posts a sign that clearly prohibits the possession of weapons on the licensed premises. The sign shall conform to the following requirements: 1. Be posted in a conspicuous location accessible to the general public and immediately adjacent to the liquor license posted on the licensed premises. 2. Contain a pictogram that shows a firearm within a red circle and a diagonal red line across the firearm. 3. Contain the words, “no firearms allowed pursuant to A.R.S. section 4-229”).
10 Ariz. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 13-3102(A)(1)-(16).
11 18 U.S.C. § 922(b)(1), (c)(1).
13 18 U.S.C. § 922(x)(1), (5).
15 Law Center for Prevention of Gun Violence, Teaming Up with the Lieutenant Governor to End Gun Violence in California (Oct. 5, 2015), http://smartgunlaws.org/.