RUSKIN - Americans traditionally celebrate Independence Day and other holidays by lighting up the sky with fireworks. But there's a dark side to those festivities. It's called celebratory gunfire.
"What goes up must come down," said Sandra Duran, whose son Diego, then 12, was critically injured when he was stuck in the head by a bullet fired during a New Year's celebration in 2012. "People die from this careless act. We could have lost our son."
Duran wants to end the practice and has since formed Bullet Free Sky, a nonprofit group aimed at educating the public about the dangers of celebratory gunfire. Toward that end, her organization and the Firehouse Cultural Center will host What Goes Up Must Come Down, a free, fundraising event from 3 to 8 p.m. July 3 at 101 First Ave. N.E., Ruskin. It will include a gun safety and awareness presentation by Aegis Tactical; food, prize drawings and arts activities for kids; and live music from 6 to 8 p.m. by Kelly Emerson and Gary Garbelman. All proceeds will benefit the Bullet Free Sky Campaign.
Diego and his family will be at the event.
"We're not anti-gun; we're pro-gun safety," she said. "We're pro-common sense. We're telling people to buy fireworks not bullets."
Sadly, Diego's shooting is more common than folks think.
"It's not a freak accident. It happens a lot," Duran said.
Earlier this month, 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 Heats 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 from nowhere.
"It's absolutely foolish to fire a gun into the air," said Major Ron Hartley, Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office District 4 commander. "You can break any law but the law of physics. Unless a bullet goes into (outer) space, it's coming back down, and you have no idea where it will land."
Diego turned 14 on May 28. He has gone through five surgeries over the past 18 months and may soon face another. He has endured months of physical, speech and occupational therapy and countless doctor visits. Nevertheless, his life appears to be falling in place.
"I feel back to normal but actually not," he said. "I'm not able to do some of the things I could before, like play contact sports or ride roller coasters. Math has gotten way harder."
"He's had short-tem memory loss, which comes and goes," Duran added. "There was a time when he didn't recognize me, his father or his sisters. (The injury) has affected his retention of new information."
Still Diego isn't bitter. What he wants is for people to use their heads.
"I want them to think twice before shooting into the sky," he said. "It's putting everyone's life at risk." He's grateful to family, friends and the community for standing by him with prayers and financial support. He feels that's what got him through the whole ordeal.
He is also glad to help his mother with Bullet Free Sky events.
"She started the whole campaign, and I feel like I should be part of it," he said. Diego knows he's the face behind the organization.
"His presence at our events always illicits greater interest and interaction," Duran said. "It's one thing to hear a story like this but it's another to hear it from the survivor. It puts the issue right in front of you."
For additional information on today's event, call (813) 645-7651 or visit Bullet Free Sky on Facebook or www.bulletfreesky.org.