Enough with celebratory gunfire

Firing into the air, for any number of reasons, is a common practice in many parts of the world. This holds true in the United States, too.

Story highlights

  • Ford Vox: 'Celebratory gunfire' an ironic term
  • Such acts should give us, as a society, some pause, he says
  • Virginia has made the practice a felony; in too many jurisdictions, though, it is only a misdemeanor

Dr. Ford Vox is a physician specializing in rehabilitation medicine and a journalist based in Atlanta. He writes frequently for CNN Opinion. Follow him on Twitter @FordVox. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)Brandon Yam has lived with a bullet lodged in his brain for a year now. The 48-year-old father of four is unable to work and has to cope with frequent headaches, partial paralysis, a poor memory, and needing a wheelchair to go longer distances. Unfortunately, this July 4 weekend could see more people suffering a similar fate to Brandon -- when they are injured by a bullet that literally falls out of the sky.

On just about every major holiday worldwide we see reports about "celebratory gunfire" deaths. It's an ironic term -- one man's moment of irresponsible, thoughtless jubilation leads to another family's woe. And as the bullet may land miles away, the assailant is rarely identified. For example, a Houston family watching a fireworks show from their driveway lost their father just minutes into 2015 as he suddenly fell back onto the concrete. His bloody head wound was caused by a falling bullet. The coroner finally ruled his death a homicide in March.
When a bullet falls from the sky and hits someone, over 70% of the time it causes a head injury like the one Brandon suffered. We also see fair numbers of shoulder, back and chest injuries. Leg injuries are the rarest, but last New Year's a woman at Busch Gardens in Tampa, Florida, suffered a leg wound from a bullet fired from outside the park, and a grandmother here in Atlanta suffered a similar wound after a bullet pierced her roof and ceiling.
    Dr. Ford Vox
    In 2007, a team of surgeons detailed their heroic and ultimately successful efforts to save a man with a chest wound caused by a bullet falling silently from above on New Year's Eve. When they opened him up they found his heart pierced in two places. That man subsequently walked out of the hospital on his own power, a true miracle of modern medicine.
    Others aren't so lucky, and it's mind-numbing to realize such scenes -- and all the associated heartache -- are the direct result of someone's throwaway gesture a mile or two away. Such acts should give us, as a society, some pause. And thankfully, in one state, it has done just that.
    Last year, Virginia made celebratory gunfire a felony crime. The law came after a 7-year-old boy died after he was struck in the head by a celebratory bullet while on his way to a July 4 celebration in 2013. His parents successfully advocated Virginia lawmakers for the felony designation, though just as in every case I've seen reported, their son's assailant couldn't be found.
    However, while Virginia's law sends the right message, in too many jurisdictions -- including here in Atlanta -- celebratory gunfire is considered a misdemeanor.
    And it's not just in the United States. The CDC reported that celebratory gunfire is a "significant public health concern in Puerto Rico," where the agency identified 19 celebratory gunfire injuries in the 48 hours surrounding New Year's 2004 alone, despite the relatively tiny population.
    The situation in Beirut, Lebanon, meanwhile, sounds particularly dire according to The National newspaper of Abu Dhabi: "People shoot in the air for all sorts of occasions. Your child did well in their high school exams? Empty a clip from a Kalashnikov from the balcony. Favorite politician speaking on TV? Same thing."
    So things could certainly be worse. And while celebratory gunfire is more prevalent in certain cultures, no single culture can be singled out for popularizing firing guns into the sky -- here in the United States, for example, firing guns into the air dates back at least to Old West times (although the sparser population made the activity a little more forgivable back then).
    Brandon Yam's case came to my attention last year because his sister Phally Bentley has worked at my hospital, Shepherd Center, for 18 years. She's the unit coordinator for one of our spina-cord-injury floors. Unsurprisingly, Brandon came to Shepherd for his initial rehabilitation.
    Phally and I talked about how Brandon's doing this week, as another July 4 approaches. He's come a long way, but plenty of challenges remain. Surgeons weren't able to remove the bullet in Brandon's head due to its delicate location. When he was wounded, Brandon was wrapping up a festive day spent at Charlotte's Cambodian Buddhist Temple, where he had been doing some fundraising.
    Sadly, Phally knows someone else is bound to be injured again, by a bullet tumbling out of the sky up to 600 feet a second. There are numerous victims of these predictable incidents who arrive without fail in ERs across the country every New Year's Eve and Independence Day.
    These are truly senseless tragedies born of our country's confused relationship with guns. It is true that we owe some part of our nation's independence and continued survival in a dangerous world to our firepower. But guns should be considered appropriate tools for such rare and sober business, and not for celebrations in the street.
    By failing to respect guns enough to know they have no place in a celebration of any kind, we are destroying the quality of life of too many people. Hopefully, more states will follow Virginia's lead so that July 4 and New Year can be celebrations, and not tragedies for unsuspecting Americans around the country.