MIAMI | What goes up must come down. That includes confetti — and bullets.
Each year as New Year’s Eve approaches, police chiefs and community leaders warn the public about the basic law of physics and the annual misguided tradition of shooting guns in the air. Each year, people don’t listen and engage in celebratory gunfire that causes property damage, injury and even death.
Alcohol, stupidity and irresponsibility are a dangerous mix, said Miami-Dade Police spokesman Det. Alvaro Zabaleta.
“It’s a crime, and you can kill someone,” he said. “You’re talking charges of careless discharge of a firearm and reckless endangerment. Have the foresight to lock your arms away on New Year’s Eve. You’re having a party and now you’ve got a drunk guy with a gun in his hands. It’s a horrible formula for a terrible tragedy.”
Police are calling on people to use common sense on Sunday night through their “One Bullet Kills the Party” campaign, while the Rev. Jerome Starling pleaded for “No More Stray Bullets” at the Jordan Grove Missionary Baptist Church on Wednesday.
“We ask you not to fire your weapons because you don’t know where that bullet is going to land and an innocent person could be hit,” said Starling, whose 5-year-old niece, Rickia Isaac, was struck and killed 20 years ago as she walked home from a parade.
Shooting guns should not be as intrinsic to the holiday as popping champagne bottles. But the custom of pointing a gun toward the sky and firing — also known as aerial firing and happy fire — is practiced throughout the world on special occasions, holidays and weddings.
In 2003, at least 20 people were killed in Iraq by celebratory gunfire following the deaths of Saddam Hussein’s sons Uday and Qusay, and in 2007 four people were killed in Baghdad following a major soccer victory. In 2003, there were reports of wedding guests accidentally shooting down a small airplane in Belgrade, Serbia. In 2005, a woman was shot in the eye and killed when a bullet came through the window of her fifth-floor apartment in Queens, New York. A random bullet pierced a police helicopter in Riverside, Calif., in 1994 and hit the pilot’s foot. In Texas, where police promote New Year’s Eve safety with such slogans as “You spray, you pay!” and “This ain’t the Wild West, partner,” a state congressman was shot in the head and wounded and another man was shot in the head and killed in the past two years.
“It’s part of the culture in some places where the sound of the gun replicates the noise of fireworks,” said Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Lt. Felipe Lay. “Nobody intends harm, but they just don’t realize that the bullet will come down. And it’s illegal. These incidents are 100 percent preventable.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention studied the tradition in Puerto Rico and found that two people die and 25 are injured on a typical New Year’s Eve. Most injuries are to the head, feet or shoulders.
“When fired into the air, bullets can return to the ground at speeds greater than 200 feet per second, a sufficient force to penetrate the human skull,” and bullets fired at an angle other than vertical are more dangerous because they travel at velocities much higher than a bullet in free fall, the report said.
In South Florida most recently, a man was grazed in the shoulder in 2013. In 2007, Corey Baker, a father of five, was killed in Miami when a bullet hit the top of his head, and Audley Banks, 69, was killed in Plantation when a bullet from an assault rifle penetrated his shoulder and lodged in his heart. In 2009, a little boy named Andrea Fregonese was hit and wounded in the stomach by a falling bullet as he and his family ate New Year’s Eve dinner in the Design District; they were on vacation from Italy. In 2008, an 11-year-old boy was shot to death in Opa-locka when a family friend fired rounds in celebration, including one into an old sofa by a dumpster — not knowing that the boy was hiding under it.
“We’re not good old boys whooping it up in the country like I was as a kid back in rural Georgia when we could shoot in the woods because there were no houses around us,” Starling said. “This is a city with lots of potential victims. When I owned restaurants in Overtown, I’d hear hundreds of rounds fired into the air on New Year’s Eve. I’ve had numerous people tell me about bullets hitting their car, their windows, their roof, their sidewalk.
“We’re shooting up the night. For young males, it’s a strong sense of proving they’ve got a weapon. But that’s not manly. That’s showboating. We’ve got too many guns and too many people who don’t care about life.”
Starling used to spend New Year’s Eve riding with neighborhood police and issuing warnings. Now he’s likely to be inside his church “where you can hear bullets firing like crazy.”
Around midnight is a dangerous time to be outside.
“I’ve worked the holiday and whether I’m on the truck or at the station, I’ll seek cover,” Lay said. “We tell everybody to be mindful of the loud, sharp sound and if in doubt, seek cover. Somebody always gets hit.
“I don’t go out on New Year’s Eve because that’s when the amateurs go out. I prefer to stay in and have a chill time than risk dealing with people drinking and doing drugs.”
Zabaleta said he expects Sunday night will be another busy end of the year for 911 operators. He advises people to put their guns in a secure place.
“I was on call last year and it wasn’t too crazy, but we’re in a melting pot here and people stick to their customs,” he said. “The parties, the loud music, the car crashes from drinking and driving. Then you’ve got gunplay with intoxicated people hurting each other. I don’t like to be on the street because there are too many careless people looking for trouble. I tend to stay put.”
Make a safe party and transportation plan, Zabaleta said.
“Yes, have fun,” he said. “But let’s have an uneventful New Year’s Eve.”