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Sarah Bonner's best friend Mattie Smith says she has no idea where the bullet came from that killed her friend at a South Carolina shooting range over the Christmas holiday.

The two were standing next to each other at the Skip J Gun Range in Anderson, taking shooting practice.

And then, a bullet hit the 24-year-old in the eye.

Smith told WSB-TV that the next thing she knew, Sarah was down:

“I don’t think we need to point fingers or anything of that sort. I was standing right there and I can’t even explain it.”

WSB-TV reports that Sarah Bonner spent three days on life support at a local hospital.

Her mother, who's battling cancer and called Sarah her “life saver,” made the decision to take her off.

A GoFundMe account has been set up by Smith to help Sarah's family pay for medical and funeral expenses.

Anderson County Sheriff's spokeswoman Lieutenant Sheila Cole told Independent Journal Review that investigators don't know what happened yet. She said investigators confiscated an undisclosed number of guns from people who were shooting at the range to run comparison tests:

“We took a round from the individual for examination and sent it to the ballistics lab to determine whose gun was responsible.”

Lieutenant Cole told Independent Journal Review that there can be no determination of charges until they find out whose gun shot the young woman. WSB-TV reports that the coroner's office ruled the death an accident.

The tragic case brings up the question of how safe shooting ranges are.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

There have been several cases of shooting range accidents recently:

  • A father killed his 14-year-old son accidentally last July at the High Noon Gun Range in Sarasota, Florida.
  • Two men and four children were hurt when buckshot ricocheted at an Ocala, Florida, range last March.
  • A nine-year-old girl accidentally killed her shooting instructor when the forceful recoil caused her to lose control of the weapon in Arizona.
  • A 21-year-old man died last August when he struck himself in the chest while reportedly trying to clear a jam.
  • A pellets from a gun struck a 10-year-old boy in the head at a range, killing him, in Iowa last summer.
  • A 14-year-old Bismarck girl was struck and killed at a rifle range last summer.
  • A man accidentally shot himself in the hand when he was unloading his gun at a range in West Virginia.
  • A Baltimore County, Maryland police officer grazed himself while drawing his weapon at a range in August.
  • In February, a 61-year-old man was killed during rifle practice on a private shooting range in Utah.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

But as shocking as those incidents are, compared to other high risk pursuits, such as working on a farm for example, gun range accidents are “exceedingly rare,” according to firearms researcher and author John Lott:

"Fortunately, accidental gun deaths in general are low, both for adults and for children. There were 591 deaths in 2011, the last year the Centers for Disease Control data are available. With over 300 million guns in the U.S. and around 45 percent of American households owning a gun, the accidental death rate is extremely low. Deaths at gun ranges, particularly when being supervised by an instructor, are close to zero.

When an adult supervises a minor, there are generally no laws barring them from shooting firearms. Federal law that bans the possession of handguns for those under 18 years of age exempts shooting ranges

Just about everything that we do is risky. In 2011, over 27,000 people died from falling and 3,556 died from drowning. Another 6,242 died from suffocation. If these types of deaths got the same news coverage that freakishly rare firearm deaths do, Americans would be afraid of leaving their homes."

Indeed, the National Shooting Sports Foundation reports that gun deaths have gone down in a big way:

During the last decade, the number of unintentional firearm-related fatalities involving children 14 years of age and under has decreased by 28 percent and by 74 percent over the last 20 years. [emphasis added]

And:

Firearms are involved in fewer than 1 percent (0.5 percent) of all unintentional fatalities in the United States.

So how dangerous are shooting ranges? The left-leaning website Think Progress calls ranges “safety-free zones,” mocking the way gun rights enthusiasts depict schools and other soft targets as “gun-free zones”:

[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.

Kevin Starrett, the president of Oregon Firearms Federation and a shooting instructor, told Independent Journal Review that all risk is relative:

"I certainly would prefer my kids to be at a range than to be getting their heads smashed playing football.

As with anything there is the potential for accidents. I am pretty confident that there are far more skiing and boating accidents."

But he told Independent Journal Review that, like most gun enthusiasts, he never, never tolerates unsafe behavior anywhere near a gun:

"I was in a Cabelas a few months ago and there was a salesman showing a customer a gun. The customer swept me and my son about 5 times in 10 seconds.

I just walked over and told them they were behaving unsafely and to stop it. They both apologized and we walked away, Cabela's Corporate heard about it too and also apologized. I think you find far less of that on ranges though. Of course it happens, but people get chewed out pretty quick when it does."

His gun club requires a safety orientation before anyone can shoot there.

But, of course, there are rules for ranges. The National Rifle Association has range rules it requires its affiliates to adhere to:

NRA RANGE RULES:

Note: While the actual range you select may not be the NRA Range in Fairfax, VA, its safety rules and regulations are a standard nationwide. It is a good idea to familiarize yourself with these rules, especially if you will be taking the NRA Range test.

1. All Federal, state, and local firearm laws must be obeyed.

2. All firearms not on the firing line must be holstered, or unloaded with their action open and the magazine removed, or unloaded and encased.

3. All shooters must pass the NRA RANGE TEST, and complete and sign the NRA RANGE RELEASE, WAIVER, HOLD HARMLESS, INDEMNIFICATION AND ASSUMPTION OF RISK AGREEMENT before using the NRA Range.

4. Owners of Class III firearms must be in possession of any special permits or paperwork required by law.

5. Food, beverages, and smoking are prohibited on the range. (Smoking is prohibited throughout the building.)

6. No muzzleloading firearms may be fired on the NRA Range.

7. All calibers of pistols may be fired.

8. Rifles up to and including .460 Weatherby Magnum caliber may be fired.

9. Shotgun slugs may be fired. No buckshot or birdshot may be fired unless authorized by the Range Officer for a specific course.

10. Tracer, armor piercing, and steel core ammunition are prohibited.

11. Commands issued by Range Officers and Range Personnel must be obeyed immediately and without question.

12. When the command “Cease Fire” is given:

Stop shooting IMMEDIATELY

Remove your finger from the trigger

Keep the gun pointed in a safe direction

Wait for further instructions from the Range Officer

13. No one other than NRA Range personnel may go forward of the firing line unless authorized or instructed to do so by the Range Officer.

14. When the line is declared “CLEAR”:

All firearms must be holstered; or unloaded and benched or grounded, with the muzzle pointed down range, with the action open, ejection port or cylinder up, and magazine removed.

Everyone must step back from the firing line.

No firearms may be handled while the line is “CLEAR”

15. Only NRA approved paper targets may be used.

16. Use the appropriate size target, placed at eye level, to ensure that your shots strike the backstop and not the floor, ceiling or target holder. Firing a shot on the NRA Range that results in the bullet striking anything other than the target and/or backstop, may result in a damage or repair fine and/or your removal from the range.

17. Cross firing of targets is prohibited.

18. All firing from the 50 yard line (i.e. from within the shooting booths) must be aimed fire.

19. If you are going to draw from a holster and fire (unless authorized to do otherwise by the Range Officer), you MUST:

Remove the shooting table from the shooting booth

Stay within the shooting booth

Keep your finger off the trigger until ready to shoot

20. Only belt holsters, placed on the same hip as the shooting hand, may be used on the NRA Range. Shoulder holsters and cross-draw holsters may not be used unless authorized by the Range Officer during designated training courses.

21. You may collect your own brass that is on or behind the firing line. Brass from other shooters and all brass that falls in front of the firing line may not be collected unless authorized by the Range Officer.

22. Competitions held on the NRA Range will be conducted in accordance with official NRA rules or by the rules of the sanctioning body of the match.

23. Always wash your hands and face immediately after shooting and/or cleaning your firearm. Sinks are located directly opposite the range exit door.

24. NRA Range Officers reserve the right to inspect any firearms or ammunition for safety considerations.

FAILURE TO ABIDE BY THESE RULES MAY RESULT IN A REPRIMAND OR YOUR REMOVAL FROM THE NRA RANGE.

Jason Brown of the National Rifle Association told Independent Journal Review that accidents on gun ranges always boil down to breaking one of the three basic rules of handling a firearm. They are sacrosanct when handling a gun anywhere:

Screenshot/NRA

The rules are:

ALWAYS Keep The Gun Pointed In A Safe Direction

This is the primary rule of gun safety. Common sense dictates the safest direction, depending on different circumstances.

ALWAYS Keep Your Finger Off The Trigger Until Ready To Shoot

When holding a gun, rest your finger alongside the frame and outside the trigger guard. Until you are actually ready to fire, do not touch the trigger.

ALWAYS Keep The Gun Unloaded Until Ready To Use

If you do not know how to open the action or inspect the chamber(s), leave the gun alone and get help from someone who does.

Brown tells Independent Journal Review that incidents like the tragedy in South Carolina are rare and infrequent but it probably happened due to fundamentally unsafe behavior:

“If you follow those three rules of gun safety it creates a safer environment. When people neglect the rules of gun safety is makes everyone else nearby unsafe. When you hear about problems it's because someone neglected the rules of gun safety.”

He told IJR that shooting ranges are where newbies get their practical experience, so it is important to note how ranges and instructors oversee them. He urges gun owners to get instruction from an NRA certified instructor.

I asked long time shooter and instructor Kevin Starrett if he'd ever been hurt at a gun range:

“Yes. I was helping to build a cement pad on our pistol range and I smashed my thumb with a hammer. No medical attention was required. Seriously, [it's] about as easy as it is to get hurt anywhere else. But I would rather be on a firing range than a golf course any time.”

Despite his levity, he knows handling guns is serious business.

Starrett told Independent Journal Review that while it is not yet known what happened to Sarah Bonner at that South Carolina shooting range he said, sadly, “I do think that it is rare enough to be a big news story when it happens.”

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