Archive for Saturday, December 30, 2000

Stray gunfire warnings given

December 30, 2000


— Terry Smith lives with a bullet lodged in her left lung, the victim of a New Year's Eve tradition in some cities around the country of firing guns into the air at midnight.

This year, she is staying inside.

"I feel vulnerable, even if I'm two feet in front of my door," said Smith, a 27-year-old single mother of two, who was hit as she watched fireworks from a New Orleans church rooftop last year. "I don't want to be outside, I don't want my children outside or my family outside."

Around the country, the sometimes lethal practice has prompted tougher laws, public awareness campaigns, even the deployment of battlefield technology that can pinpoint the source of gunfire.

In Arizona last year, firing a gun into the air was raised from a misdemeanor to a felony, punishable by up to a year behind bars.

The law came in response to the death of 14-year-old Shannon Smith in June 1999. But with the frequency of falling bullets highest around this time of year, Shannon's Law has become the centerpiece of a holiday public-safety campaign warning people not to fire guns into the air.

Phoenix City Councilman Phil Gordon said he expects that police will soon be aided by a random gunfire-detection system. The system, an offshoot of technology used in the Gulf War, uses sound sensors to pinpoint the source of gunfire and broadcasts the coordinates to police.

A similar system, called Shotspotter, has been used in Los Angeles and in Redwood City, Calif.

Los Angeles County sheriff's officials were not satisfied last New Year's, saying the device could not differentiate between gunshots and fireworks.

But officials in Redwood City, a community of about 80,000 just south of San Francisco, said the number of reported gunshots went from 400 two years ago to four last New Year's Eve, and the Shotspotter resulted in one arrest two years ago.

Even more effective have been police efforts to spread word about the device through fliers distributed in schools and businesses and through media events, police said.

"The word's pretty much out. It's kind of a reminder thing now," Sgt. Steve Blanc said.

In New Orleans last year, the sound of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of gunshots echoed around the city and five people were wounded. There were two arrests, both of which resulted in convictions. In Kansas City, Mo., a man was killed by a falling bullet from someone else's weapon, moments after he fired his own gun into the air. In Atlanta, a teen-ager was wounded.

Detroit relies largely on its "Bells Instead of Bullets" campaign, which began in 1996 after an elderly woman was killed by a stray bullet on New Year's Eve. The campaign includes posters put up in schools, billboards and televised public service announcements.

Chicago has had a similar campaign and so does New Orleans, where prevention efforts were intensified after a woman from Boston was killed in 1994 while waiting to see New Year's fireworks over the Mississippi River.

Louisiana also has a longstanding law against indiscriminate gunfire, with a minimum of two years in prison for a first-time offense and five to 10 years for those with a criminal record.

With tourists expected to pack New Orleans' French Quarter during New Year's Eve, Mayor Marc Morial urged revelers to be careful.

"I would take cover at midnight myself, and I know that's not possible for everyone to do in the French Quarter because of the density of people there," he said. "There are risks to being outside. I cannot guarantee anyone's safety."

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