Celebratory gunfire: How falling bullets kill
It’s a message that perhaps should be obvious, but the shooting of a 7-year-old boy at Brandermill’s Sunday Park on July 4 provided tragic proof that not everyone gets it.
“We’re going to put an alert out to the 26,000 people on our alert system to remind them not to shoot in the air,” said Philip Van Cleave, a county resident who is president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League.
It’s one of the first things responsible gun owners learn, said Van Cleave, whose organization works to support Virginians’ right to carry guns. “Anyone taking a firearm safety course is taught never to fire in the air,” he said.
Incidents such as the July 4 incident are widely referred to as “celebratory gunfire,” and it kills dozens of people around the world every year, according to Lori Haas, spokeswoman for Richmond-based Virginians for Responsible Gun Laws.
“Celebratory gunfire has the potential to cause unintended harm and should be outlawed in any situation, even in remote places,” said Haas, who became an activist for curbing gun violence after her daughter was injured in the 2007 Virginia Tech mass shootings.
Though the death of 7-year-old Brendon Mackey from a falling bullet shocked county residents, such incidents are almost routine in many parts of the world.
Shooting guns in the air has been so prevalent on New Year’s Eve in Detroit that police have been forced to ground their helicopters during the holiday. On New Year’s Eve in 2003 in Puerto Rico, 19 people were injured and one was killed by falling bullets resulting from celebratory gunfire.
In one widely cited study, doctors at King/Drew-UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles treated 118 people between 1985 and 1994 for random falling-bullet injuries, with almost all of the injuries occurring on holiday weekends. Of those who were wounded, 32 percent died, a rate “significantly higher than for all gunshot wound victims in general seen at the same medical center,” according to the study’s authors – likely because 77 percent of the cases involved head injuries.
Celebratory gunfire tends to injure a disproportionate percentage of women and children, who are usually not considered to have as high a risk of gunshot wounds as adult males. In one recent incident, a 10-year-old girl in Elkton, Md., was killed by a falling bullet in the early minutes of New Year’s Day this year.
Anyone who does fire a gun in the air is probably underestimating the amount of force that propels a bullet out of a gun barrel. Studies by arms and ordnance experts going back decades show that a bullet can travel surprisingly long distances and fall back to earth with a surprising amount of force.
In experimental firings by U.S. military ballistic researchers in the 1920s, rifle bullets fired straight up into the sky fell back to earth with enough force to make measurable dents in the wooden dock and boats they were fired from.
The same researchers calculated that a .50 caliber machine gun bullet fired straight into the air will fall back to the ground with a force of just under 400 foot-pounds. Modern military standards indicate a force greater than 108 foot-pounds is enough to be lethal.
The Chesterfield County Police Department said last week that the bullet that killed Brendon Mackey was “a .40 caliber class full metal jacket bullet,” likely fired from a handgun such as a Glock, Heckler & Koch, IMI, Kahr Arms or Vektor pistol.
Depending on the manufacturer and type of ammunition, .40 caliber bullets can have a force ranging from around 300 foot-pounds to more than 700 foot-pounds at the time they leave the gun.
That kind of energy can carry a bullet a long way, and people need to remember that, Van Cleave said.
“I wouldn’t recommend even shooting at a squirrel in a tree with a rifle or handgun,” he said. “That’s what shotguns are for.”