Three years ago, at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve, Armando Martinez stood in the driveway at a house party in deep south Texas, when “all of a sudden, everything started going off.”
He couldn’t tell if the ruckus he was hearing was gunfire or fireworks.
“I’d just kissed my wife and said ‘Happy New Year’ to her … and bam, it just hit me,” he said. “I put my head down and my wife said, ‘what happened?’”
“I got hit,” Martinez told her.
He put his hand on top of his head, above his left ear, and felt a welt. Then he saw blood on his hand.
“I think I got shot,” he told her.
Martinez, who is 43, was standing just a few feet away from his children and several other kids when a stray bullet from an AR-15 pierced his skull, drilling in with such velocity that he felt like someone had whacked him on the head with a sledgehammer.
Martinez, who is a Texas state legislator from Weslaco, near Brownsville, has no idea to this day who fired the shot.
Thanks to luck or providence or maybe both, he is alive to talk about what can go wrong with so-called “celebratory” gunfire on New Year’s Eve.
Martinez’s experience is a cautionary tale as police departments in Kansas City and across the country warn people — as they do every year — that firing a gun into the air to celebrate the dawn of a new year is dangerous, illegal and stupid.
“It doesn’t surprise me that a lot of people do it and they just don’t understand what the effects are, how it could become a tragedy,” Martinez told The Star. “They may think ‘Well, I fire something up in the air and by the time it comes down it won’t hurt anybody.’”
The scar on top of his head shows otherwise.
New Year’s Eve is the busiest night of the year for illegal celebratory gunfire, according to Police Chief, the publication for the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
For all the press conferences and social media postings that police departments employ to warn people away from the dangerous tradition, the message doesn’t stick. Last New Year’s Eve, the Kansas City Police Department fielded 300 calls to 911 on New Year’s Eve from people reporting gunfire.
Police Chief Rick Smith shared a photo of 360 spent shell casings, fired from at least nine different guns, that were found at one Kansas City address on Dec. 31.
“I think a lot of people discount the severity of it, or the danger of it. They think, ‘Oh, it’s like fireworks. It’s a loud bang.’ So they minimize the potential impact of it.” said Sgt. Jacob Becchina, a police spokesman.
Gunfire across the country
Every New Year’s Eve brings fresh reports from across the country of stray bullets winding up in houses, cars, and bodies.
▪ A bullet rocketed through the roof of a house in Brunswick, Georgia and landed in a bathtub.
▪A 6-year-old girl playing in the backyard of her home in Oakland, California, was hit by a bullet. Children at the party were counting down to midnight when gunshots rang out and the girl fell to the ground crying. No one knew she’d been shot until she got to the hospital, according to KGO-TV.
▪ North Carolina co-ed Kaitlyn Kong was hit by a stray bullet while watching the giant acorn drop at Raleigh’s First Night festivities. Her University of North Carolina roommate, Allyson Cole, posted Kong’s Facebook version of what happened.
“Allyson and I were watching the acorn drop, the fireworks went off and I felt a sharp pain in my left abdomen near my ribs,” Kong wrote. “I grabbed my ribs and saw blood so we called 911 and got help with the EMS, got in an ambulance and went to Wake Med hospital in Raleigh.
“I had surgery on my abdomen to remove the bullet and mend the damage to my lung, diaphragm, and stomach … The bullet was most likely from someone shooting into the air to ring in the new year, but the police are still investigating.”
In Kansas City, Kansas, last year, one man didn’t even make it out the door to fire off his gun. He accidentally shot himself in the stomach with his .22-caliber handgun.
In Kansas City, the concern over “happy” gunfire extends past New Year’s Eve. Police don’t want excited Chiefs fans firing off guns, either.
In a tweet on Jan. 20, before Kansas City lost to the Patriots, the police department suggested alternative ways to celebrate the team’s post-season.
“Chief-victory celebratory gunfire is just as dangerous and illegal as New Year’s Eve celebratory gunfire,” the department tweeted. “Scream, jump up and down, wave flags, honk, hire a blimp or play a flute to express your elation, but do not risk the lives and property of others.”
On Sunday the Chiefs beat the Chargers and ultimately secured a first-round bye and the AFC’s No. 2 seed in this season’s playoffs. They play next at Arrowhead on Jan. 12.
Even Kansas City police take cover on New Year’s Eve. Last year, while revelers strapped on their goofy party hats, some officers suited up in protective headgear.
“Officers have helmets on,” the the police department tweeted four minutes before midnight last New year’s Eve.
Five minutes later came the update: “Gunfire EVERYWHERE. Happy New Year Kansas City. BULLETS COME DOWN!”
Becchina said that when he was a younger officer he took cover as midnight neared on New Year’s Eve. When he worked out of an old station on 63rd Street, “we would go into the parking garage over at Research Hospital so there was some concrete over our heads.”
After he was promoted and moved into Midtown, “we went to St. Luke’s Hospital and would park in the parking garage there.”
“There’s this frustration and concern because we get nervous every time somebody calls 911 for police, and it’s close to midnight and we have to respond somewhere,” he said.
“Our cars are moderate shelter, but not really good shelter. And when we get out of our cars and are standing out in open air, it’s like (being) on the military battlefield and stepping out from behind cover.”
Kansas City resident Courtney Lewis took cover, too, and she’s still angry about it.
“Last year was ridiculous,” she said.
Lewis lives in the Troost Plateau neighborhood between Troost and The Paseo, just a couple of blocks south of Rockhurst University.
The gunfire on New Year’s Eve “is the only thing I don’t like about my neighborhood. But I also lived in Waldo for two years as well and we heard it there,” said Lewis, who works for the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce (she said her personal opinions don’t have anything to do with her employer).
Last year, as they do every New Year’s Eve, she and her son, then 3, spent the evening at a friend’s house. Back home by 10 o’clock, she tucked her son in bed with her “because I didn’t want to have to worry about loud noises, because I kind of had a feeling that there might be some celebratory gunfire because that’s what Kansas City does.
“I hate that people are celebrating that way because it’s not celebrating. It’s just being stupid.”
Gunshots in the distance woke her at midnight.
“So I heard it, and I was like, maybe it won’t last that long this year. Well then I heard it right outside my bedroom window,” she said.
Her neighbor — a “problem” neighbor now gone from the neighborhood — was shooting next door.
She wrapped up her son in a blanket, grabbed her cellphone and hid in the basement. They stayed there for about an hour.
“Bullets, when they go up they have to come down somewhere,” she said. “I don’t understand how people don’t realize that. It was scary … it’s like the Yosemite Sam thing, they’re just firing up into the air and they don’t think about where it’s going to go.”
She still thinks about Blair Shanahan Lane, an 11-year-old struck and killed by a stray bullet on the Fourth of July in 2011 in east Kansas City. Independence Day is another popular day for celebratory gunfire.
Over the last few days Lewis has worried that she should have made arrangements to spend New Year’s Eve at a friend’s house or at a hotel.
“I shouldn’t have to spend a lot of money on a room on one of the busiest hotel room nights of the year just so we can sleep,” she said. “We shouldn’t be forced out of our home. No one should be forced out of their home because they feel unsafe in it. They just shouldn’t.”
‘It’s never just one shot’
“Remember that song, what goes up must come down? That’s what I would tell people,” said Officer John Lacy, spokesman for the Overland Park Police Department.
“You never know where that bullet’s going to go because that bullet has no name on it. Even if you’re out in the country area, most of those guys will shoot their firearms in the air, shotguns, stuff like that. You gotta be careful because you can always injure someone.”
Add New Year’s Eve drinking to the mix?
“Drinking and shooting off a firearm do not mix. It’s not a good mix because when you are inebriated, and you think you’re shooting up in the air, you could be shooting horizontal,” said Lacy. “And it’s never just one shot. It’s usually three or four shots up in the air. One. Two. Three. Four.”
It’s those bullets fired at an angle that are more lethal than those fired straight up in the air, TV’s “MythBusters” concluded in 2006.
They investigated this claim: “Bullets fired into the air maintain their lethal capability when they eventually fall back down.”
“In the case of a bullet fired at a precisely vertical angle (something extremely difficult for a human being to duplicate), the bullet would tumble, lose its spin, and fall at a much slower speed due to terminal velocity and is therefore rendered less than lethal on impact,” the myth investigators determined.
“However, if a bullet is fired upward at a non-vertical angle (a far more probable possibility), it will maintain its spin and will reach a high enough speed to be lethal on impact.
“Because of this potentiality, firing a gun into the air is illegal in most states, and even in the states that it is legal, it is not recommended by the police.”
Martinez guesses the bullet that struck him in the head “could have come anywhere from a mile to a mile and a half” away.
Bullets can fall back to the ground faster than 200 feet per second, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “a sufficient force to penetrate the human skull and cause serious injury or death.”
In 2003, the CDC investigated cases of people injured by falling bullets in Puerto Rico, where shooting off guns at midnight is popular. Between New Year’s Eve 2013 and New Year’s Day 2014, 19 people were injured, and one died, from stray bullets.
More than a third were struck in the head. Aside from media reports, there’s little data showing the exact injuries people sustain when hit by errant bullets, the CDC says.
“News media reports from around the world suggest that celebratory gunfire injuries might be a widespread public health problem; however, further data are needed to determine the extent of the problem,” said the CDC, which suggests more public education and enforcement of existing laws that ban the practice.
After what happened to him, Martinez is trying to make celebratory gunfire a felony in Texas. His proposal would make shooting a gun without an intended target a first-degree felony if it results in serious bodily injury or death.
“The way I look at it, I’m a gun owner, I’ve been a gun owner for my whole life,” Martinez said. “But my dad’s always taught us that you never fire weapons in the air if you’re not shooting at a target or if you’re not hunting. The responsible gun owner knows better than to do that. It’s the irresponsible gun owner that is going to do something like that.”
The night he was shot, his paramedic and firefighter training kept him calm. He had someone take a picture of the top of his head so he could see the injury himself. “Oh yeah, that’s a bullet hole,” he told his family and friends.
Because he was coherent and didn’t seem to have any neurological damage, he assumed the wound was superficial. But that wasn’t the case. Surgeons found the bullet “poking” his brain. “It was very close,” he said.
He suffered no permanent damage and has only made one small tweak to his life: Now, he and his family don’t go outside on New Year’s Eve.
“The holidays are supposed to be a time of joy and happiness to spend with your families and not for families to be worrying about whether they are going to be struck by a stray bullet,” he said.