Attrition: Fatal Fun

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February 12, 2021: Lebanon is the latest country to make a major effort to curb the widespread the practice of firing rifles and pistols into the air during celebrations, especially before New Year’s Day. In Lebanon the firing into the air begins a week before January 1st and for 2021 the nationwide media campaign against the practice seemed to reduce deaths a bit and, presumably the number injured. Only deaths are usually reported while those wounded are not reported unless the injury requires hospitalization. A least one such case occurred near the end of 2020 as a woman injured by one of these falling bullets later died from the wound. A major reason behind the nationwide campaign this year was the fact that such gunfire near airports sometimes hit aircraft taking off or landing. At the end of 2020 a new (year old) Airbus airliner was damaged while parked near the terminal. Repairs kept it out of service for several hours. Other aircraft were also hit but the impact was largely superficial.

Such injuries and damage have increased as wealth grew late in the 20th century and weapons got cheaper or simply more abundant. Lebanon found more and more AK-47s and other rifles getting into the hands of families because of the 1975-90 civil war and its aftermath which saw the formation of more armed militias just in case the civil war returned. One of the largest of these militias was the Iran-sponsored Hezbollah that now controls much of southern Lebanon.

Usually most of the casualties are from rifle or pistol bullets. These are called "joy bullets" in Arabic and are actually an old problem made more noticeable as rural people, who used to do it in thinly populated areas, move into urban areas and keep celebrating by shooting. Stopping this form of celebration is a worldwide trend because of the growing number of people injured or killed during celebrations and especially national holidays like Christmas Day, Moslem holidays and New Years’ Eve. In the 21st century more nations began trying to persuade their citizens to stop, with some success.

One reason more people have weapons is because the end of the Cold War in 1991 unleased more than twenty million cheap AK-47s and billions of rounds of cheap ammo. These came from former communist states emptying the warehouses of such weapons stockpiled during the Cold War. A lot more people now had these weapons and didn’t mind shooting off a few dollars’ worth of ammo to enhance holiday celebrations. Worse yet, while for most of the 20th century joy bullets were fired from bolt-action rifles and pistols, AK-47s are automatic and can fire off the contents of a thirty-round magazine in a few seconds. Meanwhile many people still use hunting rifles or even some World War II era weapons that are still working, often just for producing joy bullets a few times a year.

Not surprisingly fireworks actually cause 5 to 10 times more casualties, including fatalities, than falling bullets. But firearms, while harder to obtain and much more expensive than fireworks, are a danger year-round, especially since so many of them are unregistered and illegal. You cannot easily kill someone deliberately with fireworks but that is what firearms were designed for.

While fireworks have been around for centuries, guns and firing them into the air during celebrations is more recent. Even more recent is this practice causing many casualties. That’s because in the last century more people were concentrated into urban areas where a lot of them were out and about during these celebrations, providing more targets for the increased number of falling bullets. Most people don’t realize that bullets fired into the air can fall back to earth with enough velocity to injure or even kill.

Firing weapons into the air is a traditional form of celebration in many parts of the world. Usually, it happens at weddings and other joyful gatherings. Major celebrations bring out even more guns. When the victim of a joy bullet is a child, that usually prompts calls for the security forces to halt this practice. That is not easy, as has been discovered in many other nations with Lebanon being one of the latest examples. Meanwhile parents in countries where joy bullets are common now know to get the kids inside when this kind of shooting starts.

Such use of joy bullets has become quite widespread. While such behavior is generally banned, and the ban enforced in Western nations, in the rest of the world many injuries still result from falling bullets because the cops don’t bother with this sort of misbehavior. Even some cities in America have a problem with this, quite illegal, practice. In some parts of Latin America there are even more guns and fewer police available to try and halt the joy bullets. Because there are relatively few injuries from joy bullets (compared to fireworks) the dangers from falling bullets tends to be given little publicity. That is changing but slowly.

What probably made more people aware of this problem was heavy losses from these falling objects during World War II and some subsequent conflicts. This was because for the first time a lot of anti-aircraft guns were used around densely populated urban areas in Europe and Asia. The result was thousands of casualties from what were, at first, mysterious metal objects falling silently from the sky. The British later estimated that some 25 percent of civilian casualties from German World War II bombing attacks on their cities were from this sort of friendly fire. That is, fragments of British anti-aircraft shells eventually fell to earth and caused property damage and casualties.

Americans had a similar experience. Most of the civilian casualties, and all 49 civilian deaths during the December 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, were from American anti-aircraft shells and bullets falling back to earth. A lot of the anti-aircraft guns used to defend Pearl Harbor were .50 caliber (12.7mm) machine-guns and these 50- gram (nearly two ounces) bullets will kill you if they drop on your head, and injure you if they hit any other body part. The 12.7mm projectiles are much heavier than rifle bullets, which will also kill or injure you if one drops on your head and hits the right spot. Kids are more vulnerable to this sort of thing. Shell fragments often weigh a kilogram (several pounds) and have sharp edges as well. There were few civilian casualties from Japanese bombs or bullets because the enemy aircraft concentrated on military targets, mainly with bombs and torpedoes. When Japanese fighters used their machine-guns on ground targets it was against personnel at these bases.

In Iraq, during the 1990s, there were instances of anti-aircraft missiles falling back to earth intact inside cities or towns. Since these things weigh several tons, they hit like a bomb. Normally the missiles are supposed to self-destruct (explode) if they don't find a target, but even if they do that there are still thousands of fragments that fall back to earth. Some of these missile fragments weighed five kilograms (11 pounds) or more. Get hit by one of these and you are dead. Large objects coming down will damage buildings and vehicles. Most explosions, be they roadside bombs, smart bombs, artillery shells, or missiles, toss heavy objects into the air. This stuff comes down somewhere and if someone is in the way they become a casualty.

During the current Syrian Civil War, which began in 2011, there was not a lot of anti-aircraft fire at first. In the last few years there were more Israeli airstrikes against Iranian and Syrian troops and facilities in or near cities. The capital, Damascus, and several other cities had SAM (surface to air missile) systems available to try and stop the Israeli aircraft or, more usually, Israeli  air-to-ground missiles used to keep their warplanes away from ground fire. Syria had plenty of the SAMs and received more from Russia after 2016. These were older models and not as effective as hoped. One thing that usually did work was when a SAM missed its target it was programmed to self-destruct in the air. That released a deadly shower of debris that caused a lot of casualties on the ground, even though the government urged civilians to view the spectacle from indoors. In neighborhoods that had not suffered deaths or injuries from falling debris, more people came outside or up in the roof to watch, and take cellphone photos.

Saudi Arabia has been the target of over 200 Iranian cruise and ballistic missiles supplied to Iran-backed rebels in Yemen and while only a few of these got past Saudi air defenses, there have been some deaths or injuries on the ground from the deadly debris raining down from successful interceptions.

It’s not just the falling bullets that are a health threat. In some parts of the world a massive use of fireworks in a short period of time can cause another problem: black powder smog. These huge clouds of unhealthy explosives residue suspended in the air can be so bad that in some cases local airport operations have been suspended for a while. In some areas, the manufacture of fireworks is unregulated (not by design) and some of the amateur rockets and such contain a kilogram (2.2 pounds) or more of black powder. Fortunately, black powder is a slow burning and not-very-powerful explosive, so terrorists generally avoid it. Industrial and military explosives are much more effective at killing people. But, in a pinch, some of that fireworks grade black powder will do. Meanwhile, what goes up must come down, often with calamitous effect.

 


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