Yo, Stupid: Don't Shoot Guns in the Air on New Year's Eve

Shannon Smith would be in her late 20s if not for the wrong-headed actions of some jerk who fired his gun into the air.

Instead, she was killed by a bullet at age 14 while standing in her front yard.

Odds are, the person who fired the gun from about a mile away -- who has never been identified, much less caught -- didn't mean to hurt anyone. The home version of the 21-gun salute is simply a way to celebrate something with a loud bang.

See also: - Shannon's Law: Three Dopes Arrested on New Year's Eve Despite Highly Publicized Warnings From Phoenix Police Department

These days, though, you'd have to be a complete ignoramus or incredibly callous to shoot into the air in the city. Phoenix police have done an outstanding job over the past decade in creating awareness of the problem, reducing "shots fired" calls on New Years's Eve by about two-thirds.

Yet some gun owners still can't seem to restrain themselves on Independence Day or New Year's Eve.

The problem is often a cultural one. Some new immigrants from Mexico, or even longtime Hispanic residents, continue to under-appreciate the risk.

Phoenix police Sergeant Tommy Thompson once told us a story about a Hispanic officer visiting his parents on New Year's Eve a few years ago. While the officer was at the house, he witnessed his mom step outside with a shotgun and fire into the air, Thompson says.

Last year, Phoenix police arrested three men for firing guns into the air. We checked court records on one of them, 32-year-old Louis Martinez, and saw that he was convicted of discharging a firearm in city limits, a felony, and was sentenced to probation.

By no means is the problem limited to Hispanics, though.

As the Smith case and many other similar incidents around the world show, bullets can be fatal when falling at terminal velocity, even though they're moving slower than when they they first leave the gun barrel. After news cameras filmed dozens of happy Libyans firing their AK-style weapons in the air following coalition bombing, the BBC News did some investigating and found that in the many places in the world where celebratory gunfire is common, people dying from being hit on top of the head from bullets is also common. Which is just what you'd expect, of course.

The Smith tragedy remains the worst consequence of shooting into the air in the Phoenix area. But it could easily happen again. This year, a 7-year-old was struck in the head and killed by a bullet in Virginia on July 4 while on his way to a fireworks show. Police believe celebratory gunfire was the culprit.

Something about the randomness of these fatal mistakes tugs at the emotions. But the saddest fact on this subject may be this: Celebratory gunfire makes up only a fraction of the deaths and injuries in this country due to stray bullets.

A California study of media reports showed that in 2008 and 2009, only 6 percent of stray bullet injuries and deaths occurred on Cinco de Mayo, July 4th, or New Year's Eve. Most of the stray bullets that hurt people are fired horizontally before striking unintended victims -- they're the bullets from the guns of armed robbers, gang-bangers and those who mishandle weapons.

The lesson here for gun owners and users, then, is more than just "don't shoot into the air."

It's to be smart anytime you pick up a gun.

Got a tip? Send it to: Ray Stern.