Many people assume that so-called “celebratory fire” is harmless fun, and that it poses no risk to others. This idea has gained additional traction ever since a Mythbusters’ episode studied falling bullets and declared it a myth. However, as an organization that closely monitors news stories, I can tell you that children die all the time as a result of celebratory fire, and we’re not the only ones who have documented this. Jennifer Marcia, who works as a writer for the gun violence website The Trace, says that stories of kids being killed by stray bullets on The Fourth of July were commonplace. (Marcia, 2015) It’s important for everyone to understand how this happens and why the myth that celebratory fire is harmless is wrong.
Why shooting in the air can be dangerous
In the Mythbusters episode, they fired a gun directly up at a perfect straight angle to the sky using a calibrated firing machine so that the bullet would go straight up and straight down. The bullet goes up in the air fighting gravity until it runs out of momentum; at which point it tumbles back to the earth at terminal velocity, which is not fast enough or powerful enough to kill someone. It can leave a painful welt on their head, but it usually doesn’t even break the skin. We’ve covered numerous cases in which a child is struck by a falling stray bullet and comes away with little more than a bump or a scratch. (Though in rare situations, a bullet in freefall could still be fatal if it hits a child in just the right place to cause a vessel in their brain to burst.)
However, this perfect case scenario isn’t the typical one. Most people, when firing a gun in celebration, don’t point it straight up and down so that it’s at a perfect angle to the Earth. They simply raise it up and fire over everyone’s head. The shot comes out at a diagonal angle rather than straight up and down. This creates an arch trajectory – the bullet goes up before gravity pulls it back down toward the ground. However, the bullet is not in freefall. It’s still spinning point first and still has additional momentum and velocity from the blast carrying it.
Many high-caliber guns pack enough power to still deliver a kill shot on this downward trajectory. Elevations in the terrain can amplify this effect. The bottom line: it’s quite possible for celebratory fire to kill someone.
For example, in one instance we know of, a little Amish girl was traveling with her family in their carriage when she suddenly fell over and died. A stray bullet had struck the grade-schooler in the chest. Authorities later traced it to celebratory fire from a man nearly 6 miles away.
Bullets traveling up and down exhaust all the power from the gun blast before falling back to Earth. Bullets traveling at an angle may not. This is why people can still be killed by celebratory fire. So if you’re such an idiot as to shoot your gun off in celebration, do us a favor and place the barrel under your chin first. That way the rest of us can celebrate one less moron endangering the community.