“[It’s the] wild west in Dutchtown to ring in the new year. :(”  — Jennie Foster on Nextdoor

In my neighborhood, you don’t need a clock or a countdown on television to know the approach of the new year. You just need to listen to the intensity of the gunfire.

The random shots start around 9 pm but around 11:55 pm, it really begins to pick up. In Saint Louis, it goes on for about twenty minutes before it tapers off. Dogs cower. Babies fret. Anxious adults worry about a shot coming through a window or through the roof.

Occasionally, someone dies.

Celebratory Gunfire

Like ISIS fighters, some residents of Saint Louis and other cities across the nation and around the world celebrate by shooting into the air. In the United States, this happens most often during Independence Day celebrations and New Year’s Eve celebrations—holidays traditionally marked by fireworks.

Phillippa Ashford, a nurse in Houston, was the most recent victim of this senseless “celebratory gunfire.” She died shortly after midnight on New Year’s Eve while setting off fireworks with her family on the driveway of her home. Police went door to door in her neighborhood, talking to neighbors and looking for shell casings. They have concluded that the shot came from outside of her neighborhood, fired by someone who had given no thought to where their bullet would come down.

During the past 25 years, 10 people in the United States have been killed by falling bullets: six during New Year’s Eve celebrations, four during Independence Day celebrations.

Five of them were children.

What Goes Up Must Come Down

At a muzzle velocity of around 3000 feet per second, a bullet doesn’t even come close to the escape velocity of earth. Since a fired bullet doesn’t go into orbit, it must come down somewhere. Fortunately, while a bullet starts at around 3000 feet per second, the drag of the atmosphere slows it down. And the closer to vertical the bullet is fired, the more the drag of gravity also slows it down.

In fact, a bullet fired in a perfect vertical trajectory must actually come to a complete stop before returning to earth. At that point, the stabilizing spin of rifling is completely spent and the bullet tumbles to earth. It reaches a terminal velocity of around 300 feet per second, when the acceleration due to gravity is cancelled by the drag of the atmosphere. Such a bullet is no more deadly than a bolt dropped from an airplane.

Whew! Just 300 feet per second. That just 10% of the speed of the bullet leaving the gun, with just 1% of the kinetic energy.  (Remember, Ek = ½ mv2)

Wait! 300 feet per second? That’s about 200 miles per hour. I expect that being hit by a bolt or a bullet travelling at 200 miles per hour is going to do some harm.  Especially since the target presented is a head.  I know my skull is pretty thick (at least according to those who know me) but it is not thick enough to withstand the assault of an object travelling at 200 miles per hour.  Children are even more vulnerable. The speed that will penetrate adult human skin is 200 feet per second (135 mph); for children it is less.

Worse, gravity only cancels the vertical component of travel. If the trajectory of the bullet is not perfectly vertical, it never stops moving forward and it continues to spin. Atmospheric drag still slows it down, but not as much. It will go a long way before it ever slows to terminal velocity.

The fools that are shooting their guns in “happy fire” are not carefully aiming in a perfectly vertical direction, so their shots will be of the much more dangerous type.

But What Are the Odds?

There are thousands, no, millions, of shots fired in celebration every year. Just within my hearing on New Year’s Eve, there were hundreds of shots fired over the course of 20 minutes. Yet, in the United States, the average number of fatalities from celebratory gunfire is only 0.4 fatalities per year.

Compare that with the 163 traffic fatalities that the National Safety Council estimated for the 2019-2020 New Year’s holiday. And that was with New Year’s Day on a Wednesday, the day that results in the lowest holiday fatality rate.  Next year, New Year’s Day will be on a Friday, and the number of New Year’s traffic fatalities can be estimated at around 300~350.

When it comes to the dangers of the New Year’s holiday, traffic fatalities are almost 1,000 times more hazardous than celebratory gunfire.

Even the probability of being fatally struck by lightning is worse than being fatally struck by an errant bullet shot during celebratory gunfire.  The National Weather Service reports that on average, there are 43 fatal lightning strikes per year in the U.S. That is one hundred times worse than fatalities from celebratory gunfire in the U.S.

Cold Comfort

Granted, the risk is very low. However, that doesn’t make the grief of Phillippa Ashford’s family any less. When is the risk low enough? That requires a risk-benefit calculation. The risk in the United States is about 1 fatality per billion persons per year. What is the benefit? Absolutely zero to the victim. So, the risk/benefit ratio approaches infinity. The risk can never be low enough.

The people shooting their guns in the air to celebrate are imposing a risk on others that, while small, is too much to justify by any measure. Because it is done from a distance and at even less risk to the shooters themselves, it is the most cowardly kind of risk-taking.

It should be no wonder that celebratory gunfire is illegal everywhere in the United States.

What Should Be Done?

I applaud the public information campaigns waged year after year by police departments around the world. As a Macedonian ad campaign pointed out in 2005, “Bullets are not greeting cards. Celebrate without firearms.”

Should the police do more? Honestly, no. Given the considerably higher risk of traffic accidents during the holidays, I would much rather see their finite resources devoted to keeping alcohol-impaired drivers off the road.

Should we do more? Vocally condemning the practice is valuable. It may even help. As for keeping ourselves safe, the best advice is to stay indoors. A bullet loses much of its momentum and kinetic energy when it strikes a roof or wall.

There Are Other Things to Worry About

Celebratory gunfire at New Year’s Eve is not harmless. Don’t do it. Encourage others to find different ways to celebrate. But don’t worry about it. A drunk driver, or even lightning, pose much greater threats. It would be much better to apply your concern to hazards that truly threaten you and the ones you love.

Happy New Year.