Two tragic news stories in the past week have illustrated some dangers with kids using guns, even under the close watch of parents.
Questions grow after Uzi death of child
Call for new rules at gun shows
By Brian R. Ballou
Globe Staff / November 8, 2008
The micro Uzi machine pistol placed in the hands of an 8-year-old at a Westfield gun club’s pumpkin shoot last month is so hard to handle that it has earned a nickname among gun enthusiasts: the “Fifty-fifty.”
“That means there is a fifty-fifty chance that you’ll either kill whomever or whatever you’re aiming it at or kill yourself,” said Steve Traver, owner of D&S Gunworks, a firearms company in Hancock. “That machine gun should have never been at that shoot. It doesn’t have a grip and has such a high rate of fire that even adults have a lot of difficulty controlling it. It’s designed for highly-trained bodyguards, not children.”
Yet 8-year-old Christopher Bizilj was handed the gun last month and, with an instructor by his side and his father standing behind him, was allowed to pull the trigger. The gun careened from his grip, and the boy shot himself in the head.
Beacon Hill lawmakers have now called for a Public Safety Committee oversight hearing Nov. 17 to craft legislation that would address the issues of who may discharge a firearm and the conditions for handling firearms.
“We want to understand how exemptions exist that would allow a child to get their hands on this type of weapon, how these firearms are in Massachusetts, and what are these roving gun shows and how do we allow them to rove in Massachusetts,” said Representative Michael A. Costello, the Newburyport Democrat who is cochairman of the Joint Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security.
The outdoor event in Westfield was organized by COP Firearms & Training, an Amherst company run by Pelham Police Chief Ed Fleury that organizes machine gun shoots regionwide.
At the time, some dismissed the incident as a freak accident. But the fact that children were shooting the gun that day at the Westfield Sportsmen’s Club has astonished many in the firearms community.
“To someone untrained, it’s a very dangerous weapon to handle,” said Craig Swinson, owner of CQB Arms in Richmond and a chief range safety officer and firearms instructor certified by the National Rifle Association. “They’re loud and, because of the short barrel, not controllable and basically a last-ditch weapon. It is generally used by bodyguards for executive protection, to lay down a lot of targets at a short distance.”
Swinson added that the micro Uzi is known for its severe kick, requiring people who fire it to grasp the barrel to control it.
Because the barrel is so short, it presents other hazards. “There is always the danger you will shoot your fingers off, because of the movement when it recoils,” he said.
The annual Machine Gun Shoot and Firearms Expo at the Westfield Sportsman’s Club boasted on its website before the event that a $5 entry fee was waived for children under 16 and said there was “no age limit or licenses required to shoot machine guns.” Before the accident, other children had fired the gun with the help of a guide, the boy’s father, Dr. Charles Bizilj, said in an interview in October.
The Westfield Police Department is leading an investigation into the shooting. The Hampden district attorney’s office and the Boston regional office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are also investigating. Westfield Police and the district attorney’s office did not return calls yesterday seeking comment. Their investigations will probably focus on whether those responsible for conducting the shoot were negligent in allowing a child to handle such a weapon and whether any state licensing laws or other laws were broken in the process.
State lawmakers say gun clubs appear to be unregulated. Massachusetts law requires anyone under age 18 to have parental consent and the supervision of a licensed instructor to fire an automatic weapon. Otherwise, there is no minimum age to fire such a gun.
“The more I look into it, the less regulation there seemsto be,” Costello said. “I hear there are over 200 gun clubs in the state, so we want to find out what is their licensing procedure and what regulations exist.”
Todd Reichert – supervisory special agent in Washington, D.C., for the ATF – said federal statutes come into play at gun clubs when a licensed dealer sells guns or if illegal machine guns are being fired or traded on the premises. “When it comes to gun laws,” he added, “there is no blanket yes and no blanket no. The answer often is, it depends.”
It is unclear how the micro Uzi came to be at the club that day.
Some gun sellers said there is very little demand for the gun. “It’s useless,” Swinson said. “They aren’t very practical and don’t sell much.”
Slain father taught boy to use guns, priest says
FLAGSTAFF, Arizona (AP) — A man who police believe was shot and killed by his 8-year-old son had consulted a Roman Catholic priest about whether the boy should have a gun and had taught him how to use firearms, the clergyman said.
The Very Rev. John Paul Sauter said the man, Vincent Romero, 29, wanted his son to learn how to hunt, but the boy’s stepmother, Tiffany, suggested that he have a BB gun.
Police say the boy used a 22.-caliber rifle Wednesday to kill his father and another man, Timothy Romans, 39, of San Carlos.
Romero was an avid hunter who taught his son how to use a rifle to kill prairie dogs, said Sauter, of St. Johns Catholic Church.
“He wanted to make sure the kid wasn’t afraid of guns, knew how to handle it,” the priest said. “He was just too young. … That child, I don’t think he knows what he did, and it was brutal.”
The boy, who faces two counts of premeditated murder, did not act on the spur of the moment, St. Johns Police Chief Roy Melnick said.
“I’m not accusing anybody of anything at this point,” he said Saturday. “But we’re certainly going to look at the abuse part of this. He’s 8 years old. He just doesn’t decide one day that he’s going to shoot his father and shoot his father’s friend for no reason. Something led up to this.”
On Friday, a judge ordered a psychological evaluation of the boy. Under Arizona law, charges can be filed against anyone 8 or older.
The boy had no record of complaints with Arizona Child Protective Services, said Apache County Attorney Brad Carlyon.
“He had no record of any kind, not even a disciplinary record at school,” he said. “He has never been in trouble before.”
In a sign of the emotional and legal complexities of the case, police are pushing to have the boy tried as an adult even as they investigate possible abuse, Melnick said. If convicted as a minor, the boy could
be sent to juvenile detention until he turns 18.
Police had responded to calls of domestic violence at the Romero home, but authorities were searching records Saturday to determine when those calls were placed, Melnick said.
“We’re going to use every avenue of the law that’s available to us, but we’re also looking at the human side,” he said.
Melnick said officers arrived at Romero’s home within minutes of the shooting Wednesday in St. Johns, which has a population of about 4,000 and is 170 miles northeast of Phoenix. They found one victim just outside the front door and the other dead in an upstairs room.
Romans had been renting a room at the Romero house, prosecutors said. Both men were employees of a construction company working at a power plant near St. Johns.
The boy went to a neighbor’s house and said he “believed that his father was dead,” Carlyon said.
Melnick said police got a confession, but the boy’s attorney, Benjamin Brewer, said police overreached in questioning the boy without representation from a parent or attorney and did not advise him of his rights.
“They became very accusing early on in the interview,” Brewer said. “Two officers with guns at their side, it’s very scary for anybody, for sure an 8-year-old kid.”
Prosecutors aren’t sure where the case is headed, Carlyon said.
“There’s a ton of factors to be considered and weighed, including the juvenile’s age,” he said. “The counterbalance against that, the acts that he apparently committed.”
FBI statistics show that instances of children younger than 11 committing homicides are very rare. According to recent FBI supplementary homicide reports, there were at least three such cases each year in 2003, 2004 and 2005; there were at least 15 in 2002. More recent statistics weren’t available, nor were details of the cases.
Earlier this year in Arizona, prosecutors in Cochise County filed first-degree murder charges against a 12-year-old boy accused of killing his mother.
Romero had full custody of the child. The boy’s biological mother visited St. Johns during the weekend from Mississippi and returned to Arizona after the shootings, Carlyon said.
Family members declined to speak on the record.
Brewer said the boy “seems to be in good spirits.”
“He’s scared,” he said. “He’s trying to be tough, but he’s scared.”
First of all, i need to say that i am deeply saddened by the tragedies. The first was bad enough, but the second was so terrible, i avoided the story for the past 3 days.
Normally, i might kick some ideas around, maybe trying to irritate people into exaggerated response to prove some point or the other …
and personally, i love and own firearms, and i’d be lying if i said i haven’t let the kids shoot some of them.
This past weekend, we had our own ‘pumpkin shoot’, but it was just some friends and i, and our wives.
children have been shooting firearms almost as long as adults have been. there were young hunters a hundred years ago, and there are some now. some states even have ‘mentor’ programs to teach kids as young as 10 to hunt big game, under the supervision of adults.
i want to voice my personal opinion, and hope to do so without pointing the finger at the parents … there has been enough pain and loss already.
i made the mistake of allowing a kid to fire a .22 semi-automatic pistol. it won’t happen again. why? it’s too small to grab and help aim (or take away) if the child isn’t being safe … and really, a child can’t learn safety without practice.
some guns have too much recoil, are too awkward to handle, or have other safety concerns. i would not feel comfortable having my wife fire my shotgun, for example, because it is heavy and has a strong kick to it. certainly, i would not let my children fire it until they are much bigger and stronger physically.
i don’t think firearms-training should be forced on children who have no desire to use them. i don’t think creating a “masculine” “blow ’em up!” mindset with firearms is appropriate for kids.
i do, however, agree with many people that children with an interest in firearms should be taught to respect them and safely use them. i believe – and studies have shown – that education and prevention are more important in firearms safety than outright restriction and prohibition.
that said, i don’t think children under 18 should have free access to firearms. i think if you buy a kid a gun, great … but it should be locked up whenever an adult familiar with its safety and use cannot be present. i don’t think kids should be permitted to use a firearm that is ‘more than they can handle’, but the threshold cannot be legislated – it needs to remain a variable based on personal judgement and accountability, because some kids can handle more, and some less.
despite these two incidents occuring in the same week, we need to keep in mind a few things:
– gun accidents (including adults!) are still less frequent (by far!) than car accidents or drownings, or even lightning strikes or shark attacks.
– in the article where they talked about children under 11 committing murders in small numbers (three each year but the one where there were 15), most murders committed by children involve strangulation, bludgeoning, or stabbing – the incidents of firearms being involved are closer to two deaths per century.
– prohibition of firearms among certain age groups (or economic status, like Obama has proposed) will increase the liklihood of serious injury and death, because the ‘excitement factor’ will increase and the safety education availibility will decrease as a result of such bans.
– in most states, parents who do not secure their firearms can go to jail if a child locates and operates or possesses one (brings it to school, etc). these laws are ALREADY on the books.
– i noticed certain keywords have been kicked around, trying to instill fear or prejudice in the general public. words like ‘gun show’ and ‘pawn shop’ really don’t mean anything significant to public safety, since pawnshops and gunshows are bound by the same background-check laws that other licensed FFL’d dealers are required to follow.
though mostly saddened by the tragic loss of life in these incidents, i also know what the political reaction to these deaths will be. we will certainly see Obama and Biden go back on their ‘second amendment’ promises, and the nations crime rates will begin to creep up again as we are systematically disarmed.