A fatal shooting like the one that occurred this week at a gun range in Arizona likely wouldn’t happen in Maine, firearms advocates say, because most of the state’s shooting ranges don’t allow fully automatic weapons, and gun-safety courses typically restrict the types of firearms that children can use.
An instructor at a commercial range in Dolan, Arizona, was killed Monday when a 9-year-old girl learning to fire an Uzi shot him in the head. The instructor had told the girl to try “full auto” on the weapon. The girl couldn’t control the recoil and the gun rose over her head still firing bullets, hitting the instructor.
The incident has sparked a national debate about young people handling firearms, especially powerful automatic weapons.
Since the federal assault weapons ban expired in 2004, eight states, including Massachusetts and Connecticut, have enacted bans on assault weapons, while two other states, Minnesota and Virgina, prohibit possession of assault weapons by people under 18, according to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
Federal law requires a person to be at least 18 to purchase a rifle or shotgun and at least 21 to purchase a handgun, according to the law center.
Monday’s accidental shooting is similar to a 2008 incident in Massachusetts in which an 8-year-old boy accidentally shot himself in the head after he lost control of an Uzi at a gun show.
However, gun enthusiasts and safety advocates in Maine, which does not regulate assault weapons, agreed that such an incident is unlikely to occur here, given the state’s tradition of using firearms primarily for hunting.
“I believe Mainers have a really responsible attitude towards guns,” said Tom Franklin, president of the board of directors of Maine Citizens Against Handgun Violence, a nonprofit that works to prevent gun violence by advocating for personal responsibility and legislation.
“Mainers are careful with guns, have more experience with guns, and are more prepared to protect children from those types of accidents,” Franklin said.
David Trahan, executive director of the Maine Sportsman’s Alliance, a 10,000-member nonprofit that is considered the voice of Maine’s 300,000 sportsmen, noted that the for-profit Arizona range allowed customers to choose from an array of weapons, including grenade launchers and machine guns. He doesn’t know of similar commercial ranges in Maine, he said.
SAM partners with roughly 70 gun shops and fish and game organizations to offer hunter safety classes, Trahan said. In most cases, children start by handling fake guns before moving on to airsoft guns – replica guns that fire spherical projectiles, usually plastic or aluminum – or a low-caliber, single-shot rifle, like a .22.
According to the 2013 State Scoreboard by the Brady Campaign to End Gun Violence, Maine received an F for the stringency of its gun laws, but had the 10th lowest rate of deaths from guns.
A poll conducted for the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram in 2013 showed that 55 percent of Mainers reported having a gun on their property. That was 8 percentage points higher than the response to a national Gallup poll conducted around the same time.
The poll was conducted at a time when gun restrictions were being debated in Congress. A slight majority of Mainers – 51 percent – said they’d support outlawing semi-automatic weapons, compared to 44 percent nationally.
But Maine gun enthusiasts and safety experts agree that parents are ultimately responsible.
“The primary responsibility of preventing young people from having access to guns they can’t responsibly handle lies with the parent. And I don’t see any evidence in Maine that parents have failed in that responsibility,” Franklin said.
Dave Ennis, 53, of Windham is a member of the Falmouth Rod and Gun Club. He taught his son and daughter, now adults, how to shoot when they were about 12.
Ennis believes the parents of the girl in Arizona were irresponsible.
“It makes no sense to me as a member of a club and a parent,” said Ennis, who has never shot a fully automatic weapon. “That’s not how you start off. Yeah, they’re sexy and interesting to a lot of people, but that seems just totally inappropriate.”
Julian Beale, 63, has been a shooting instructor for more than 40 years and owns Kennebec Guns in Augusta, where he also runs competitive shooting events for youths. Clubs generally set minimum ages for children to take gun safety courses and to access the range, he said.
Gun safety usually can be taught to kids as young as 6 using an air gun, Beale said, whereas children typically must be at least 10 years old to take a hunter’s safety course using real guns, mostly low-caliber. Most pistol programs require kids to be at least 16.
Beale noted that only people who are licensed by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are authorized to sell and own fully automatic weapons, which are not allowed at most shooting ranges.
No shooting range in Maine, to his knowledge, allows customers to rent and fire automatic weapons.
Beale emphasized the need to teach children everything about firearms before allowing them to shoot, including how the gun works and safety information.
If a shooting accident like the one in Arizona were to happen in Maine, it would probably occur in a private setting, not at a public range, Beale said.
“It’s not going to be an instructor – it’s going to be a parent (who would get shot),” Beale said. “And a parent knows the capabilities of their kids, I hope.”