BOSTON – Gun control advocates hope that manslaughter indictments in the death of an 8-year-old who accidentally shot himself in the head with an Uzi at a gun show will deter other gun shows from allowing children to fire weapons.
But enthusiasts say gun ranges are remarkably safe and that most shows do not feature live shooting like the one in Westfield where Christopher Bizilj, of Ashford, Conn., lost control of the powerful automatic weapon while aiming at a pumpkin.
James Wallace, executive director of the Gun Owners' Action League, a membership-based organization that represents individual gun owners and gun clubs around Massachusetts, said the clubs have a near-perfect safety record.
"We look at safety so seriously that any accident, especially a fatal accident like this, is going to rock our members for years," Wallace said.
"But this is so rare; if you look at other activities kids are involved in, shooting sports at the ranges is probably the safest activity kids can get involved in," he said.
Christopher attended the Machine Gun Shoot and Firearms Expo at the Westfield Sportsman's club on Oct. 26 with his father and brother. The fair's ads promised shooters with certified instructors, but prosecutors said last week Christopher was supervised by an uncertified 15-year-old boy when the accident occurred.
The gun club, two men who supplied the weapons and a small town police chief who owns a company that sponsored the fair were all indicted last week on involuntary manslaughter charges. In addition to the manslaughter charges, the police chief and the club were also indicted on four counts each of furnishing a machine gun to a minor.
But the criminal charges may have little effect on how gun shows are run in Massachusetts, which already has some of the strictest gun laws in the nation.
State law says it is legal for children to fire a rifle or shotgun if they have parental consent and are supervised by a certified instructor. But it is illegal in Massachusetts to furnish a child with a machine gun under any circumstances.
Most gun shows in the state are events where guns are bought and sold, but they do not feature live shooting.
NewMart Promotions, a New York company that sponsors several gun shows in Massachusetts, including a popular annual show at the Western States Exposition in West Springfield, has no live shooting at any of its events.
"We don't even allow loaded guns in the shows. Every gun is emptied at the door by the West Springfield police," said Martin Fasack, director of NewMart.
Gun control supporters hope the indictments in Massachusetts will deter promoters in other states where shoots offering children the chance to fire machine guns are more common.
"This sends a strong message nationwide that other gun clubs who are engaging in these kinds of machine gun shoots could face criminal penalties if they don't stop this sort of dangerous conduct," said Daniel Vice, senior attorney for the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence in Washington D.C.
Vice said there are no federal regulations governing live shoots at gun shows. The events are regulated by each state. In most states, a child could walk into a gun show and fire an Uzi legally, he said.
Ralph Scott, who organizes the Southern-Ohio Machinegun Shoot in Minford, Ohio, said he hires certified range officers to stand at each of the 20 positions at his shooting range to oversee each person firing a weapon. Scott said the vast majority of people who come to the shoot are adults, but when a child comes with a parent, the instructors make decisions on a case-by-case basis when a child asks to shoot one of the machine guns.
The range officers stand with and help any child who shoots a machine gun, Scott said.
"It has to do with ability, competency and being able to listen to instructions," Scott said.
"It's tightly, tightly controlled," he said. "There are multiple layers of safety built into this thing."
Still, Scott said Christopher's death made him look again at safety precautions.
"I think it's an awful thing," he said. "Anytime anybody gets hurt, anytime there's a lapse in safety, somebody needs to re-evaluate what happened because something wasn't taken care of. It just makes me more vigilant."