When Ethan Williams opened his Christmas presents in Royal Oak, Mich., a year and a half ago, there was one special gift he inherited from his great-grandfather: a .22 caliber Winchester 62A pump-action rifle.
He was 7.
“I knew he was ready,” said Jen Anesi, the boy’s mother, who learned to shoot a gun at around the same age. “In my family, when you’re 7 or 8 years old, that’s when you use a BB gun and then you use a .22 rifle.”
The two now go on regular shooting outings at a firing range outside Detroit.
A family trip to the gun range will seem shocking to some parents, and like common sense to others. But after a 9-year-old New Jersey girl lost control of an Uzi submachine gun and accidentally killed her shooting instructor while on vacation in Arizona this week, the debate over kids and guns has been renewed.
In headlines and across social media, parents and pundits are debating how young is too young for a child to handle a weapon, whether it’s OK for parents to take kids to the gun range, and whether children should legally be allowed to shoot guns at all.
For Anesi the answers are simple: She says educating Ethan about guns is essential for his safety. If he discovers an unsecured gun in someone else’s home, she wants him to already be armed with information on the power of firearms.
“It’s much more difficult to get it through younger children’s heads that these are dangerous and they can and will kill you if you don’t let them use them,” she said. “Once you squeeze the trigger and feel the kickback and hear the sound, then it becomes real.”
As for the accident in Arizona, which occurred at the Last Stop range about 60 miles south of Las Vegas, Anesi said her first thought was that it was a horrible tragedy. Her second was, “Who the hell put that gun in her hand?”
Parents, she said, have to know their child’s skill and maturity level, consider their physical size, and be familiar with the weapons themselves.
Anesi owns a World War II era M1 Garand rifle, and said Ethan is not yet allowed to use it.
"It’s a big behemoth of a gun and it kicks like crazy, and there is no way I would ever put that gun in his hand before he's a teenager," she said.
Chris Zavala of Highland Village, Texas, feels similarly. He has two sons, and started taking the younger one to the range when the boy was 10.
“Once I saw natural interest, I thought it was important that they learn respect for firearms and gun safety,” he said.
Even though his son is now 13 and has fired semiautomatic weapons before, Zavala said he wouldn’t allow him to fire an Uzi like the one the young girl from New Jersey used.
“He’s about 115 pounds, and I would not allow him to shoot anything other than a .22 caliber,” Zavala said. “Once you get above .22 caliber, there’s heavier recoil, and he just does not have the mass or the muscle strength to handle that recoil.”
P.J. Turner of Corinth, Texas, began going to the range with her son Bryce a little over a year ago, when he was 14.
“I want him to be skilled regarding guns in case he’s ever in the unfortunate position of having to defend himself,” Turner said. “Plus, it’s something he and I really enjoy.”
Turner noted that the environment in which a young person learns to shoot is key to safe shooting. Bryce, now 15, has fired an AK-47, but the gun he used was tethered to chains to prevent the sort of accident that happened in Arizona.
“The range that we use has that gun chained down,” she said. “Even though he’s the size of a grown man, it was chained.”
Turner believes it should be up to parents to decide what age is appropriate for a child to learn to shoot.
There are laws regulating the age a person can purchase or possess a gun, but Laura Cutilletta, a senior staff attorney with the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, notes that there are exceptions to these laws for supervised minors at shooting ranges, and such exceptions are common.
After a Connecticut boy accidentally killed himself with an Uzi in 2008 at a range in Massachusetts, his home state passed a law one year later making it illegal for a person under 16 to fire a machine gun, even with supervision at a range.
In the absence of specific laws, shooting ranges often determine their own age limits.
Dave Driscoll, an owner of Point Blank Range in Mooresville, N.C., allows children 8 and older to fire a weapon if they are with a parent or guardian and deemed capable by the staff.
He set the age limit at 8 due to health concerns, not fears over gun safety, believing children under 8 are more vulnerable to the lead exposure that comes with firing a weapon.
Age, Driscoll argued, is somewhat arbitrary. Not all 8-year-olds are created equal, and parents may not always be the best judges of their own children's abilities.
There have been times, Driscoll said, that his staff of firearms instructors have had to rein in overeager parents.
“You get a parent in there and the kid has shot guns before and they want them to shoot a .44 Magnum with them. The caliber is not appropriate maybe for that child,” said Driscoll. “You’re the parent, you know the child, but we’re professional firearms instructors and we know firearms.”
Driscoll estimated that in the three years his range has been open, about half a dozen parents have requested that their child be able to fire a fully automatic weapon. (The Uzi used in the recent Arizona case was set to automatic mode.) Approximately half of those requests have been denied.
Driscoll’s advice to parents? Be sure you and your children are getting enough instruction and training.
“People are less likely to seek training for shooting than they are for golf or tennis. And your golf swing is not going to kill you,” he said.