Police in Arizona confirm that the family of shooting victim at a gun range in White Hills will not press charges, choosing instead to forgive the young girl involved in the tragedy. The heartbreaking shock of the accident strikes a chord of astonished admiration that the grieving children could find forgiveness in their hearts so close to the raw emotions sparked by the news of the loss of their dad. Their declaration that they bear no ill will toward the girl recalls similar stories of forgiveness in the wake of tragedy and prompts thought-provoking reflections on how to find grace and mercy in the midst of unparalleled pain.
Arizona law enforcement officials are treating the shooting case as a tragic industrial accident while police, OSHA and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives seek confirmation of the cause of the accidental shooting of gun instructor, Charles Vacca at the Burgers and Bullets Last Stop gun range in White Hills. Vacca had worked there for about 18 months.
Family video, taken moments before the accident, shows Vacca gently instructing the young girl in the use of the Uzi submachine gun. Range spokespeople maintain that she was qualified to operate the weapon regardless of her youth as long as her parents were present, which they were, in spite of the unforgiving public backlash. Seconds later, the submachine gun recoiled to the left on the child as she pulled the trigger resulting in Vacca’s fatal head injury.
Vacca’s sons and daughters, along with ex-wife Anamarie, appeared on NBC’s Today Show, Friday, Aug. 29, 2014 issuing a statement that they do not blame her for the dreadful episode that ended their father’s, a well-trained military veteran, life last Monday. They expressed compassion for the little girl and extended their hearts to comfort her and her family. They told the young girl that they are thinking about her and praying for her family, not wishing for this tragedy to shipwreck the rest of their lives.
Vacca’s daughter, Ashley, plans to write the girl a letter to let her know that the family recognizes that they are good people in spite of the horrific consequences of their visit to the gun range, acknowledging that both families will have to learn to live with the aftermath. Vacca’s family described him as a good person, father, and they hoped to highlight the memories of his sense of fun, as well as his love and devotion to his family, which they returned in abundance.
The family’s model of forgiveness even while the pain is still fresh calls to mind Pope John Paul II’s forgiveness of his would-be assassin in his prison cell in the early 80s, as well as other less well-known examples of public forgiveness after heartbreak. Georgia Farrell, whose son Jonathan was shot by a North Carolina police officer during an ill-fated misunderstanding in the wake of a car accident mistakenly reported as a burglary, explained to Today News that although a piece of her heart will always be missing, she had to forgive.
Wendy Edmonds, sister of the Washington D.C. victim in the Navy Yard shooting, concurs that she had to set her feelings aside and forgive the shooter to prevent bitterness from growing in her heart. Although the words felt hollow at first, Farrell and others expressed the feeling that the burden of an inability to forgive had be expunged, and the subsequent release involved in forgiveness set them free to move past their grief and find peace in the middle of unimaginable sorrow and pain.
The decision to embrace forgiveness can seem unfathomable while the survivors’ hearts and minds are still reeling from the devastating loss. However, Stanford University’s Forgiveness Project Director, Dr. Fred Luskin, shares that letting go of the anger soon after the tragedy is not as unlikely as it might first appear. Those with a habit of forgiveness find it easier because it is almost a reflex reaction as they find grace in releasing the bitterness.
Today News cites research that a strong faith tends to incline people to desire and seek forgiveness more readily. Even in the unlikeliest of circumstances such as genocide, war, and the atrocities of global conflict, stories emerge of incredible forgiveness and the ensuing healing that takes place when people give up their right to animosity and vengeance. Rami Elhanan, who lost his daughter in the ongoing violence affecting Israel, shares his observation that the only way to stop the cycle of violence is to listen to others’ pain and attempt to find peace and reconciliation with those who have harmed a loved one. As Arizona police continue to investigate the shooting tragedy, this wisdom confirms that the young girl and the victim’s family can find hope for the future in forgiveness.
By Tamara Christine Van Hooser