Peace Time: Happy Holidays And Friendly Fire

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December 31, 2013: The Philippines has joined the growing list of nations trying to persuade their citizens to stop the practice of firing rifles and pistols into the air during celebrations. This effort got a boost during Christmas Day celebrations that left at least two people wounded by bullets (they are called "joy bullets" in Arabic) falling back to earth in the Philippines. New Year’s Eve is expected to be worse, as it usually is. With the economy improving and many people grateful to be alive after a major typhoon hit the islands in November many people don’t mind shooting off $5-10 worth of ammo to enhance holiday celebrations. An AK-47 will do that in a few seconds, but most people use hunting rifles or even some World War II era weapons that are still working. At the same time the Philippines recognized that fireworks actually cause more casualties, and 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.

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 guns got cheaper, people had more money to buy them, and more people were concentrated into urban areas where a lot of them were out and about during these celebrations, providing more targets for the falling bullets. Bullets fired into the air can fall back to earth with enough velocity to injure or even kill. This is a widespread problem that does not get much attention.

Meanwhile the carnage continues worldwide. Last September at least one Afghan civilian was killed in Kabul, as thousands of the many people out in the streets celebrating the first Afghan international football (soccer) championship fired weapons into the air. This is a traditional form of celebration in this part of the world. Usually it happens at weddings and other joyful gatherings. Major celebrations bring out even more guns. In this case the victim was a child and that prompted calls for the security forces to halt this practice. That won’t be easy, as has been discovered in many other nations.

For example, in 2012, Pakistan police in the capital (Islamabad) sought to halt the practice of firing guns into the air for celebrations. In this case the police were seeking to avoid the hundreds of casualties (and dozens of deaths) from the use of fireworks and firing guns into the air each year to celebrate the New Year. While over 90 percent of the casualties are from the fireworks, a growing number of deaths and injuries are caused by bullets falling back to earth. There are more guns and ammo available and more people are shooting off bullets to celebrate.

In 2007 three civilians were killed and fifty wounded in Baghdad, Iraq by gunfire associated with the Iraqi team winning a game during the Asian Games. Parents in Iraq know to get the kids inside when this kind of shooting starts. This was all about the widespread Arab custom of firing weapons into the air on happy occasions, often with deadly consequences. For a long time, when someone was killed or injured by the bullets that inevitably came back to earth the injury was shrugged off, or blamed on a handy enemy. Palestinians blame Israelis, some Iraqis blamed any armed foreigners in the vicinity or nearby Iraqis they don't get along with. Otherwise it's just "God's Will." In many parts of the world it took decades for people to accept that these mystery bullets were the unfortunate aftereffects of celebratory firing into the air.

Such use of joy bullets has become quite widespread. While such behavior is generally banned (and the ban enforced) in Europe, 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 the heavy losses from these falling objects during World War II. 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, British anti-aircraft shells eventually fell to earth and caused property damage and casualties.

Americans had a similar experience. Most of the civilian casualties from the 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.

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 weigh 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.

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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