Tossing tinsel, toasting champagne, stealing a midnight kiss — and firing off a few rounds into the air?
Every year leading up to New Year’s Eve, police departments in major U.S. cities have to remind people that the law of gravity is a 24/7 thing, that what goes up must come down, and that falling bullets kill.
Although celebratory gunfire may bring to mind cities like Baghdad and Kabul, dozens of people across America are killed or wounded every year on New Year’s Eve and Independence Day by the recklessness of gun-toting drunkards.
Just after midnight on January 1, 2010, for example, four-year-old Marquel Peters was killed by a falling bullet while sitting inside a church in Decatur, Georgia. The round, likely shot from an AK-47 between a half-mile and three miles away, sliced through the roof and struck Peters in the head.
In 2007 in Miami, Corey Baker, a 35-year-old father of five, died after a falling bullet hit the top of his head while he was celebrating the New Year. That same year at a backyard party in Miami, Audley Ebanks slid off his chair and fell to the ground. His wife, Eula feared he was having a heart attack. It was worse. The 69-year-old real estate agent was killed instantly by a plunging rifle round.
Although the odds are low of being struck by a falling round on New Year’s Eve, the problem is pervasive enough that police in parts of some cities take cover in the minutes before and after the ball drops.
In the ten minutes before and after the New Year in Miami, police get out of the open and only respond to emergency calls.
In Los Angeles, said former L.A. police chief Bill Bratton, “Nearly every cop is under an underpass at midnight because of the sheer volume.”
Although the government doesn’t keep official data on fatalities from falling bullets, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study in Puerto Rico found that two people are killed and 25 wounded on a typical New Year’s Eve from falling bullets.
In Houston, former police chief Charles McClelland said his force gets about 200 calls every New Year’s about celebratory gunfire.
In Los Angeles in the evening between 2014 and 2015, police spokeswoman Nicole Nishida told Newsweek, the department received 74 calls about illegal shooting
Encouragingly, though, that number is down significantly from the 788 calls recorded in 1992, the 645 calls recorded in 1999, and the 145 calls during New Year’s Eve 2005.
In Miami, too, between 2012 and 2015, police said, New Year’s Eve gunshots dropped 80%. Stockton, California, and Springfield, Massachusetts have experienced similar declines.
Several factors could explain the reduced frequency of New Year’s Eve celebratory gunfire: public awareness campaigns; stiffer punishments (firing a gun into the air is a misdemeanor in some places, a felony in others); and gunfire detection and location technology like ShotSpotter. The company says over 20% of nationwide gunfire from September to December happens on New Year’s Eve.
But despite that technology, pinpointing the location of a gunshot that could have come from miles away is a major challenge, not to mention tracking down the actual shooter — basically a moonshot.
During New Year’s Eve 2013 in Birmingham, Alabama, for example, there were 2,500 reports of gunfire, but only nine arrests. (Presumably there were not 277 calls for each instance of gunfire.)
Although falling bullets travel at a slower velocity than bullets fired directly at a nearby target, they’re moving between 300 and 700 feet per second, more than fast enough to penetrate the human skull.
What makes them so lethal, though, is their tendency to hit heads, shoulders, and feet. A 1994 study, “Spent bullets and their injuries,” found that 32% of people hit by falling bullets died from the wound, a significantly higher rate than for all gunshot victims in general.
In New Orleans, the police remind the public every year not to fire off rounds into the air on New Year's Eve. As one unnamed officer dryly told Newsweek, "If you are caught, you will be dealt with. Falling bullets fall."