This is a completely new edition of an article that was published on April 1, 2013. New information has been added and any inaccuracies have been reviewed and completely removed.
Celebratory gunfire occurs when people with guns use them to mark an event. It’s culturally acceptable to fire projectiles, not only fireworks but sometimes bullets into the air on holidays in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Northern India and many places in Latin America. Gunfire rings out above the noise of fireworks in the streets of Barcelona when FC Barça edges out Real Madrid for the futbol championship. After a cease fire in the Mideast, soldiers routinely celebrate by unloading their weapons into the air. It happens all over the US on New Year’s Eve and again on the 4th of July. But in the US, it is not only a dangerous and reckless practice, it is illegal.
A party tradition with a body count.
On New Year’s Eve, in Highlands Park, CA (A suburb of Los Angeles), Sheriff Lee Baca warned about the dangers of shooting live ammunition into the air. A few hours later, past the stroke of midnight, a 30 year old man was struck in the head and hospitalized by bullet fragments from above. Fortunately, he survived. “A bullet fired into the air can return to earth at speeds between 300 and 700 feet per second, fast enough to pierce a person’s skull,” Baca claimed.
This was not an isolated incident. Celebratory gunfire has wounded hundreds and killed dozens in recent years in the US alone. A 50-year-old woman in Atlanta, an 11-year-old boy in Phoenix, a baby in New Orleans — deaths like these are reported and investigated every year. A young man in Fresno, CA was killed when a friend’s vertical ‘lucky shot’ went straight up and came straight back down, entering his skull. A randomly-fired bullet hit a police helicopter in Riverside, California on New Year’s Eve in 1994, striking the pilot in the foot and forcing him to make an emergency landing. In Dallas, Texas on January 1st, 2012, a bullet came through the roof of a bedroom where a woman was nursing her baby and landed next to her on her bed.
Bullet time: the science of projectile flight.
When a bullet leaves the barrel of a gun, it is under explosive acceleration. It is compelled to spin due to spiral grooves cut into the gun barrel, which provide stability and direction during the first 3 to 6 seconds of flight. Eventually, the blast energy wears off, and the projectile, working against air resistance and gravitational pull, begins to drop. If fired horizontally, the energy dissipates in a linear fashion, and unless it impacts against something, it will eventually slow down and come to rest in the dirt.
However, if fired up into the air, some different physical properties come into play. A .30-06 rifle bullet, shot straight up with an initial velocity of 2,900 feet per second (880 m/s), will eventually lose all inertia. The top of the arc is too steep to crest and therefore — once the forward motion is dissipated — it will fall back to earth. It will again accelerate due to gravitational forces until drag from air resistance lets it reach terminal velocity on its unpredictable return path. Incidentally, the bullet fired upwards will not always come back down facing downwards.
If fired at an angle between 20 to 45 degrees or even more, then the bullet will travel farther with a greater probability of hitting something (or someone). The uninterrupted ballistic trajectory will make it far less likely to engage in a tumbling motion, and allow it to continue at a higher speed over terminal velocity.
Raining cases: facts or fiction?
Of the millions of rounds fired into the sky by trigger-happy celebrants, most land innocently in empty land. Fortunately, the impact of a falling bullet is much less than that of one fired directly at a target. Major General Julian Hatch, a U.S. Army firearms expert, did extensive testing on ballistics and falling projectiles in the 20’s. He calculated that .30 caliber rounds will reach terminal velocities of 300 feet per second (90 m/s) on descent, and determined that, while most bullets will leave a small dent in the ground when they land, that same bullet travelling between 200 to 330 feet per second can still penetrate human skin. The experience of many hospitalized and killed innocents validate his conclusions.
The popular scientists on the TV show, Mythbusters experimented with the premise that “Bullets fired into the air maintain their lethal capability when they eventually fall back down.”
They found that a bullet fired straight up (an almost impossible achievement for a human), will tumble on its return trip and falls at a slower rate due to terminal velocity. In addition, they found that a bullet in this circumstance is therefore less lethal on impact. However, they also discovered that a bullet fired at a non-vertical angle will be able to maintain its speed enough to be very destructive on impact. In determining if the myth was ‘Busted’, ‘Plausible’ or ‘Confirmed’, they proposed that this myth would receive all three ratings at the same time.
Projectile dynamics: forces of nature vs. forces of fantasy.
According to apologists in the police departments, some people think (wrongly) that the bullets they fire high up to the heavens either disintegrate up there, or will never hurt anyone out in the dark. “A lot of these people, they’re somewhat impaired,” claims Fred King of the Houston Police department. “They’ve been drinking. They’re just not using good judgment.”
They clearly don’t think they will get caught (if this crosses their mind at all), but police departments across the country receive complaints and witness statements, evidence falls to the ground somewhere (maybe on the bed next to you), and the complaints are investigated. And, if there is an injury or a death, bad luck seems to follow these insensitive shooters.
As the 2006 IANSA Macedonian Poster campaign against celebratory shooting clearly stated, “Bullets are not greeting cards. Celebrate without firearms.”
Your Turn: Do you have any evidence to the contrary? Want to share your stories? Leave us a comment. We’d love to hear from you.