TAMPA — The mantra “What goes up must come down” echoes this time of year for the Duran family in Ruskin.
It will be two years ago New Year’s Eve that Diego Duran, then 12, took a couple of steps into his back yard just after midnight to watch some distant fireworks when he walked into the path of a falling bullet fired into the air, probably miles away, in celebration.
The projectile had reached its peak and hurtled back to earth, tumbling into the top of Diego’s head and sending the boy to the hospital for a series of surgeries and months of therapy sessions. Memory lapses continue to this day. He’s now a freshman at Lennard High School in Ruskin and has to live with a shunt to drain fluid from his brain.
His mom, Sandy, could have raged or become a fierce anti-gun advocate, but she instead focused her efforts on making the public aware of the obvious dangers of shooting celebratory gunfire into the air.
She began Bullet Free Sky, a non-profit organization that takes aim at the careless practice of firing guns into the air to celebrate occasions like New Year’s Eve and the Fourth of July.
“Basically, our message is pretty simple,” Sandy Duran said. “We want to raise the awareness of celebratory gunfire; we want everyone who does this to think twice about it.”
She said handgun bullets can travel more than three miles and some high-powered rifles can send rounds four miles away.
“They can be deadly,” she said. Though the bullet didn’t kill her son, it did exact its toll.
“He’ll have to live with the shunt,” Duran said. “And there is no sports. He’s bummed about that.”
She’s constantly reminded of the dangers of celebratory gunfire every time she looks at Diego, now 14. She soon found out that her son isn’t the only victim of celebratory gunfire.
Earlier this year, 15-year-old Brandon Reid was watching postgame coverage of the NBA Finals while visiting his mother in Miramar, when a bullet grazed his head after entering her house through a sliding glass door. Police said they suspected celebratory gunfire prompted by the Miami Heat’s win.
On Jan. 1, Aaliyah Boyer, 10, was fatally wounded when she went outside with friends for a few minutes after midnight to watch neighbors light fireworks. She was visiting her grandmother in Elkton, Md. and, as in Diego’s case, a bullet dropped out of the sky.
Closer to home, Laurie Eberhardt, 67, was watching fireworks from a second-floor balcony at the St. Petersburg Yacht Club when she was struck in the wrist by a falling bullet just after midnight on New Year’s Day this year. She was taken to Bayfront Medical Center, where doctors removed the round that likely came from a rifle someone had fired to bring in 2013.
Never is it a good idea to fire a gun into the air, experts say.
“Every time you have a firearm in your possession, you need to be aware of the direction of the barrel,” said Bruce Kitzis, general manager of Shooters World on Fletcher Avenue north of Tampa, where gun safety courses are taught.
“Lots of people just don’t think about the consequences of shooting a gun into the air,” he said. “When that bullet falls, it can reach speeds of 1,000 to 2,500 feet a second. It’s cooking.
“It’s not just that you can take a life,” he said, “but how many roofers are out there repairing roofs in houses and how many vehicles have holes in their hoods because of this?
“Firearms safety is not just making sure the gun is not loaded,” he said. “It’s always knowing where muzzle of gun pointing.”
Shooting a gun into the air can be illegal, said Hillsborough sheriff’s spokesman Larry McKinnon, if the bullet travels across property lines.
If the act of firing a bullet in the air damages property a charge of culpable negligence can be brought. If it kills someone, a charge of manslaughter could be lodged, he said.
“We support Sandy Duran and Bullet Free Sky because it is not anti-gun but pro-safety in the operation and handling of firearms,” McKinnon said. “The practice of celebratory gunfire is dangerous to the community as it poses a serious risk of death or serious injury to the public.”
Sandy Duran insists she is not anti-guns, but rather an advocate for safe handling and shooting of firearms.
Through publicity raised by her group, which sets up informational booths during regular street markets in Ybor City, Apollo Beach and Ruskin, the word is getting out.
“We have met several people who admit having that family tradition every year, of shooting guns into the air,” Duran said, “and that they never thought anything about it until now.
“We don’t judge them,” she said. “That would alienate them and then they won’t listen.” She says showing them X-rays of Diego’s head with the bullet lodged in his brain “really gets to them.”
As for the Duran family, celebrating New Year’s Eve probably won’t change much.
“We never went out to parties or anything,” she said. “We were thinking of the drunk drivers. Instead, we spend it together, just us. We’ll probably not step outside when fireworks go off. We can see them from our window.
“We now appreciate that we all are alive and together.”