Leonard Pitts Jr.: An Uzi, a 9-year-old and American exceptionalism

08/29/2014 2:25 PM

08/29/2014 2:26 PM

Sometimes you read a sentence and you think to yourself: only here, only us.

Here’s one such sentence.

“A 9-year-old girl from New Jersey accidentally shot and killed her instructor with an Uzi submachine gun while he stood to her left side, trying to guide her.”

That’s from a New York Times account of the death of 39-year-old Charles Vacca, who worked for the Last Stop shooting range in White Hills, Ariz. He died Monday when his preteen student lost control of the Uzi. Apparently, the gun was in “repeat fire” mode, the recoil lifted the muzzle, the little girl couldn’t master it and Vacca was struck in the head.

The child and her family, who have not been identified, were vacationing last week in nearby Las Vegas and had signed up for a package deal offered by the gun range. It included a tour of Hoover Dam, a hamburger lunch, an optional helicopter flight over the Grand Canyon and the chance to fire a range of powerful weapons, including sniper rifles, grenade launchers and machine guns. Everything was going fine until, as the Times put it, the “adventure went horribly wrong.”

For the record, some of us would argue that “horribly wrong” began, not when the child lost control of the gun, but when “adults” first placed this powerful piece of military hardware into her small hands. That act raises questions that are as blunt and indecorous as they are necessary and unavoidable:

What kind of shooting range allows a prepubescent girl to fire an Uzi? What kind of instructor does not guard against recoil when a child is handling such a powerful weapon? What kind of parents think it’s a good idea to put a submachine gun in their 9-year-old’s hands? And what kind of idiot country does not prohibit such things by law?

It is the last question that should most concern us. There’s not much you can do about individual lack of judgment. Some people will always be idiots. Some companies will always be idiots. But a country and its laws should be an expression of a people’s collective wisdom. So for a country to be idiotic says something sweeping about national character.

And where gun laws are concerned, the United States of America is – individual dissenting voices duly noted and exempted from the following descriptive – dumber than a bag of bullets. This, after all, is the country where you can take a gun into a bar. Where you can erect a shooting range in your own backyard. Where a blind person can get a gun permit. You think it’s insane that Arizona allows a 9-year-old to shoot at a firing range? ABC News reports that one in Texas allows them to do so at age 6.

Age 6.

God bless America. We legislate against shariah law in places where there are no Muslims, much less an inclination toward shariah. We pass laws to curtail election fraud despite the fact that election fraud, as a practical matter, does not exist. Yet we endure a yearly toll of gun carnage that makes civilized people in civilized places shake their heads in wonder and our only action is inaction.

We should mourn for this little girl who will have to live the rest of her life with the memory of what she inadvertently did. But let us also mourn for a country where what she did now barely qualifies as news.

We speak often and with pride of America’s exceptionalism – by which we mean our rights, our freedoms, our values. And they are, make no mistake, among the finest in the world.

But there are days when the bullets fly and the blood flows and no one can give you a good reason why this had to happen, and it occurs to you that we are also exceptional in the sheer, stubborn stupidity of which we are all too often capable. Last week brought another such day. A man was killed by a 9-year-old wielding a submachine gun.

Only here, only us.

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