There aren’t many rules at gun ranges to prevent the sort of tragedy that happened Monday when a 9-year-old girl accidentally shot and killed her instructor with an Uzi.
The owner of the gun range where anyone 8 years or older is permitted to shoot a gun said he regretted allowing the girl to use a gun and was considering height restrictions similar to those at amusement parks. The National Rifle Association, meanwhile, sent a tweet that was later deleted from its new NRA Women initiative that read, “7 Ways Children Can Have Fun at the Shooting Range.”
Monday’s tragedy was an accident — one of many that occur every year, including in instructional settings. And overwhelmingly eclipsed by the number of everyday homicides and suicides that happen in the home or on the street.
But a lack of age restrictions isn’t the only way gun ranges are safety-free zones, and potentially the sites of preventable deaths. Inside gun ranges, individuals can also “rent” a gun without any of the precautions that happen before an individual buys a gun. They don’t have to pass a criminal background check. There’s no check of their mental health records, although some require individuals to attest to their mental competence. Many gun ranges don’t even collect names or identification. And that’s not even the worst part.
Even those gun ranges that want to check the backgrounds for rental customers are not permitted to. Stephen Fischer of the FBI’s Criminal Justice Information Services told Politico Magazine earlier this month that individuals who rent guns don’t actually “possess” them because they don’t take them off the premises. So federal background check law doesn’t apply, and the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) is not permitted to conduct a check. Many states, including Florida, take the same position that they will not conduct background checks for gun rentals.
It was in a Florida gun range that Marie Moore fatally shot her adult son and then herself in 2009. Because Moore had been involuntarily institutionalized in 2002, she couldn’t have passed a background check. But she didn’t have to in order to rent a gun at Shoot Straight. Hers was the second shooting death in the course of a month at the state’s largest independent gun-shop chain. And after the second incident, a suicide, Shoot Straight changed its policy to halt rentals until it could implement a background check system. That was before owner Joerg Jaeger learned that he wasn’t allowed to background check renters. For a time, Shoot Straight started allowing rentals again. But a spate of at least 11 more suicides followed in the Orlando area. So in January of 2014, the chain banned rentals altogether.
Left to their own devices, other gun ranges have implemented varying policies. Oak Ridge Gun Range has profiled those who have committed suicides and stopped renting guns to individuals who fit that profile. “We don’t rent to any white male Florida resident who comes in alone,” owner John Harvey told the Orlando Sentinel. “In the past 30 years, we’ve never had a suicide that wasn’t a white male Florida resident who came in alone.”
But most gun ranges still allow rentals, which they consider to be a lucrative and important part of their business. Jon Kirson of the Orlando Gun Club estimated that 90 percent of his customers that eventually purchase guns first rent those guns to try them out, according to the Orlando Sentinel.
Kirson also had his own idea for gun rentals. He has a “buddy policy” that requires two or more adults to buy guns together — reducing the likelihood that individuals will come in alone to commit suicide. This policy, however, wouldn’t have stopped Moore from killing not just herself but her son. It wouldn’t have stopped sisters Kristin and Candice Hermeler who killed themselves in a suicide pact in a Colorado shooting range. And it wouldn’t have stopped Eddie Ray Routh.
Routh is charged with having shot and killed two fellow military veterans including decorated Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle at a Texas shooting range in 2013. Before that incident, Routh had been hospitalized twice after exhibiting emotional disturbance and threatening to kill his family. It’s not clear that he would have failed a background check. But at Rough Creek Lodge he didn’t have to. The guns were laid out for him when he arrived.