Joanna Weiss

Children on the firing line

Instead of vilifying those who use guns, we should focus on safety

By Joanna Weiss
Globe Columnist / January 9, 2011

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THE BIG news from the trial of former Pelham Police Chief Ed Fleury, charged with involuntary manslaughter in the death of a boy at a gun show, is that the jury saw a video from the day 8-year-old Christopher Bizilj died. It was taken by his father, who had escorted his son to the Westfield Sportsmen’s Club, watched him fire a Micro Uzi submachine gun at a pumpkin, and then saw things go horribly, tragically wrong.

There was at least one other video taken that day, which you can find on YouTube: a father and his son, who looks to be 10 or 11, heading out together to the same machine-gun exposition. They swing by a Home Depot to buy safety glasses. They take in the scene: clouds of dust, noise-reduction headphones, men and women shooting happily. Then the son aims a gun at a pile of bullet-riddled pumpkins, as an older person’s hands rest on his shoulders. He shoots — rat-tat-tat-tat-tat — turns to the camera, grins, and says, “That was fun!”

In the aftermath of Bizilj’s senseless death -- and the terrible mass shooting in Arizona yesterday -- gun control is again in forefront of public thought. Yet the polarized discussion we have about guns seems disconnected from the way gun use actually plays out in American life. To people who don’t own or use guns, the link between firearms and violence is self-evident, whether in the accidental shooting of a boy in Western Massachusetts or the intentional attack on a congresswoman in Tucson. But for people who shoot and hunt as families, the fixation on linking guns to violence and crime seems uniformed and willfully ignorant.

It’s hard to fathom how any adult could hand a powerful military weapon to a prepubescent boy. But it’s also hard to deny our cultural fascination with gunpower. Anyone who has seen little boys turn pretzel rods into weapons understands that there’s something innate at work — the same inner urge that makes girls gravitate to princesses, even as their parents try to steer them toward trucks.

So at what point does play-acting with a pretzel turn into shopping at an online store called, which sells authentic-looking plastic AK-47s for $14.99? At what point does it turn into “let’s give my 8-year-old an Uzi and let him shoot a pumpkin”? According to the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, there are between 2,500 and 5,000 gun shows in the country every year, many of them marketed as family events. In Massachusetts, there are no special regulations over private shows, though minors are forbidden from possessing automatic weapons.

There are, however, many gun clubs that stress their safety rules — and, in some cases, have strengthened them in the wake of Christopher Bizilj’s death. The Chicopee Sportsmen’s Club now prohibits anyone under 8 from handling a firearm or bow, and requires a safety course to get on the firing range, says Richard Mastronardi, the club’s executive vice-president. Eight still seems shockingly young for handling a powerful weapon. But it also feels wrong to suggest that no firearm can ever be handled responsibly -- or to vilify any parent who wants to teach his child to shoot a clay pigeon or a paper target.

Mastronardi, 68, grew up hunting and shooting, raised three sons to handle firearms, and says he always emphasized their safety. What he can’t understand is the mindless, realistic gore in modern video games. “So much of the violence in these videos, I can’t believe what I’m seeing sometimes,” he told me.

When it comes to guns and common sense, everything is relative. Edward Vieira, a Simmons College professor who has studied the effects of violent video games on kids, says acting out war with toys and friends is better than playing “Modern Warfare” alone, shooting at faceless enemies, detached from the reality of what a gun can do.

That’s one irony about gun shows, as the YouTube video shows: they’re

events that families experience together, places where kids can understand the power of a gun. It’s just that if something goes wrong, where a real gun is involved, you can’t just press a button and reset.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at