Remembering the first kill

This week in Arizona, a nine-year-old girl shot and killed her shooting instructor by accident. The instructor was teaching the little girl to shoot an automatic 9mm Uzi.

Sit with those two sentences for a second.

Here’s the worst thing I ever did with a gun.

I was old enough to know how a rifle worked. I’d grown up around hunters. I’d seen deer hung from their hind legs and dressed in an old garage. I’d eaten venison in just about every form. My dad had a .30-06 that terrified my mom. She had dad break it down. She hid it in pieces around the house. I never saw the gun and ammo in one place until I was 39 years old. Living in a state where gun possession was allowed, I got away with not seeing a gun in one piece for a long time. I researched into how legal that gun was, and nowadays it’s even easier to understand gun laws, as you can visit websites such as to learn more. It seemed strange to me even then that my Mom was terrified of something that was allowed in the house.

At some point when I was old enough to know better but not old enough to stop myself from doing it anyway, I went out into the woods with a couple of friends and a .22 rifle. We traipsed through the leaves looking for something to shoot, and before long we spotted a raccoon in a tree. We killed it. Knocked it right off the branch and watched it die on the ground below. For no reason other than to shoot a gun and kill something.

I’m actually glad the memory isn’t clear enough for me to remember which of us fired the kill-shot, because I’m afraid I’d remember it was me. And frankly, the memory of watching the damned raccoon die there in the leaves was enough to last another 30 years. It wasn’t that I’d killed something so much as I killed something for no reason at all.

I didn’t shoot and kill anything else after that.

I’ve spent some time trying to figure out who would put an automatic weapon in the hands of a nine-year-old.

I’ve fired all kinds of guns. Shotguns, rifles, pistols, and yes, automatic weapons that just keep firing as long as your finger is pulling the trigger. I even knew about long distance optics too. None of the guns are particularly easy to shoot accurately without practice. The automatic pistol I fired (under police supervision and instruction) was certainly the most difficult to handle, even for an adult. It’s like trying to hold on to a mad animal. So many who first try guns can be quite nervous about how to go about it, after a while they can become pros and know how to use holographic sights, add ons, and other accessories, it takes practice if they want to keep going at it.

According to news reports, the young girl was on vacation, had fired the weapon in single-shot mode a few times. Then the instructor flipped the switch for her, and she let it rip.

I think back to that decision I made when I was a kid, a stupid and careless lark that ended with me standing over an animal that was dead, not because we needed food, not because it was threatening us, but only because we’d decided to shoot it. As silly as it sounds, that day still bothers me.

Now, I think about a nine-year-old girl who will never, ever forget accidentally killing a man…for no reason at all.

Here’s the thing: I think we can all agree it’s a terrible idea to give an Uzi to a child, right?

Sure we can. Just like it’s a bad idea to ask a child to practice administering anesthesia on a surgery patient. Just like it’s a bad idea to have a kid drive a car on the interstate. Just like…well, just like all things that are-on their face-just stupid to let a kid do.

And so, if we all agree on that, we can just tick this incident off as a senseless tragedy, one in a hundred random events, lightning bolts from hell, things we just couldn’t stop from happening, flashes of fate that end with bloody collateral damage.


Well, I just can’t take that leap, unfortunately. And so I find myself asking: how does a kid end up shooting a fully automatic Uzi?

It required a walk, one that I hope illustrates that this isn’t simply just a matter of stupid fate and its stupid collateral damage.

It starts off simple enough. Some folks-a lot of folks-see guns as guns, as one single category of good or bad, as something to hold dear or something to vehemently oppose. They see no fundamental difference between a shotgun that can ruin a bird’s day and an Uzi that can kill a whole bunch of people at once. That opposition doesn’t end, and so, for good or bad, we’re left with all the guns.

But then we walk down the road a bit, and we have to agree on other things. For instance, if all these guns are to be a part of our society, then we better develop a healthy respect for them, educate ourselves, educate our kids, and fully understand what these weapons do. Right? If we’re going to have guns around, we damned well better take the training classes, buy the trigger locks, and teach our children what a gun can really do. Don’t touch the stove when it’s hot, don’t close the garage door when the car is running, and don’t point the gun at Daddy. One way gun owners can stop this from happening is through proper weapon storage. If your weapons are accessible to irresponsible people, your guns are not safe, and neither are you. By investing in premium weapon storage, you can make your guns impossible to get to for anyone that isn’t you.

But then we walk a little more, and education becomes entertainment. Because, make no mistake, guns are fun as hell to shoot (that’s me in the picture above getting my trigger finger ready early). Like a lot of life’s best experiences, shooting a big gun makes you feel just on the edge of total control, knowing that there is something immensely powerful in your hand and that if you mess up even in the slightest, everything could go to hell.

So-right or wrong-there are people who make their daily bread disguising entertainment as education. You can walk into a lot of places on any given day and shoot some of the same weapons our soldiers use on the battlefield. I have dear friends-responsible people about whom I care about deeply-who go out and shoot these guns. I don’t worry about them. They’re the smart ones.

Unfortunately, not everybody is so smart, and every once in a while, we learn that the hard way. And the hard way means people end up dying. Sometimes a lot of people die, and sometimes just one at the hands of a nine-year-old girl who will never forget what it looks like to see a man she killed dying in front of her.

So, there we sit, watching a family iPhone video of a little girl in pink shorts holding an Uzi, and we cry, “Why couldn’t people just be smart? Why did all the adults have to be so stupid?”

For a great many gun owners and enthusiasts I know, smart is the default. If everyone were just as smart as my friends, you wouldn’t see little kids killing people.

And that’s where we get back home from our walk, where we again stand in the place where people don’t argue over the kinds of guns. They argue for them or they argue against them, a debate that will never, ever result in either side winning. But until that point, even the idea of being smart is antithetical to the cause.

Don’t believe me? Well, don’t forget the people who boycotted a gun store for selling smart guns and how that gun storeowner valued his business more than the idea of offering a smarter gun.

And then don’t forget the little girl who wasn’t fortunate enough to have a smart adult in shouting distance when she put her finger on the trigger of an automatic weapon.

And then wait for someone to stand up and say, “The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a nine-year-old girl with a weapon of war.”

Brad Willis

Brad Willis is a writer based in Greenville, South Carolina. Willis spent a decade as an award-winning broadcast journalist. He has worked as a freelance writer, columnist, and professional blogger since 2005. He has also served as a commentator and guest on a wide variety of television, radio, and internet shows.

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2 Responses

  1. Steve Wood says:

    This one brings back a memory that makes me sad every time I think about. A situation almost identical to the one you describe except that the dead critter was a rabbit. Me, two friends, each with a .22 rifle and a dead rabbit.

    I never shot at a living thing after that. Not that I got real smart. I did get really good at shooting a pecan out of the upper branches of a tall tree. A smart person would have seen the folly. As far as I know, no one walking through the woods was hit by a .22 slug falling from the sky.

    Thanks as usual for a compelling, thought provoking post.

  1. August 15, 2015

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