Peace Time: Joy Bullets Forever

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January 25, 2016: In the 21st century more nations began trying to persuade their citizens to stop the practice of firing rifles and pistols into the air during celebrations. 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 (plus Moslem holidays) and New Years’ Eve. Such injuries have increased as wealth grew late in the 20 th century and weapons got cheaper. These bullets (called "joy bullets" in Arabic) falling back to earth 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 .

One reason by more people have weapons is because the end of the Cold War in 1991 unleased over ten million cheap AK-47s and billions of round of cheap ammo. These came from former communist states emptying the warehouses of such weapons stockpiled during the Cold War. Thus a lot of people now had these weapons and didn’t mind shooting off $5-10 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, an AK-47 is an automatic weapon and fire off thirty round in a few seconds. Meanwhile many people still use hunting rifles or even some World War II era weapons that are still working.

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 won’t be easy, as has been discovered in many other nations. 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 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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