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Folks in one Santa Maria neighborhood had a bit of excitement last week when they heard the sound of gunshots.

Police were called, rushed to the scene, where they found a man in a vehicle snapping off shots into the air from a small-caliber handgun. A tense situation ended when the man put down the weapon, and stepped into the street with his hands in the air in surrender.

All’s well that ends well, and that is apparently what happened with the air shooter.

But, here’s the thing, what goes up must come down, at least within this planet’s gravitational pull. Bullets fired into the air do not just magically disappear. They fall back to Earth, too often with deadly results.

Three people in the Philippines died due to stray bullets fired to welcome the arrival of 2011. In 2010 a Turkish bridegroom killed three relatives when he fired an AK-47 into the air at his own wedding. When the Iraqi football team defeated Vietnam in 2007's Asia Cup, three people were killed in Baghdad amid widespread gunshots as fans celebrated. Celebratory gunfire in Kuwait after the end of the Gulf War in 1991 was blamed for 20 deaths.

OK, so this isn’t Baghdad or Manila, but falling bullets do injure and kill people in the United States. A study found that 118 people were treated for random falling-bullet injuries at just one Los Angeles hospital between 1985 and 1992, resulting in the deaths of 38 people.

Central Coast communities are not immune to this problem. Every July 4 and New Year’s is accompanied by the sound of gunfire of all calibers and usually lasting for more than a few minutes.

When you really think about the potential consequences of celebrating by firing a gun into the air, also think about this: An AK-47 bullet leaves the barrel at more than 1,500 mph, and despite the projectile’s relatively light weight of 5 grams, the falling bullet has the same energy as a brick dropped from atop a 30-story building. With a direct hit on the top of someone’s skull, the bullet will tear through a lot of bone and tissue.

A bullet fired straight up loses most of its muzzle velocity by the time it gets back to the ground. But if there is any variation in angle, a lot of that power is retained. All a falling bullet needs to be lethal is to break the skin. Then the real mayhem occurs.

A bullet fired into the air can take a minute and a half to come down, which is enough time for a celebrant to forget about the shot going up in the first place. It provides quite a surprising shock — if it doesn’t kill you.

Urban areas — such as the ones most of us occupy — are particularly dangerous during July 4 and New Year’s celebrations. More people, more targets.

These facts probably are not considered when someone fires a gun with the barrel pointing skyward. But it’s important to know and consider on those celebration days that the party ends when a bullet fired into the air crashes through a bystander’s skull, or shoulder, or arm.

We bring this up now because we are entering one of those celebratory seasons, and folks are figuring out fun ways to enjoy the holidays, and because we recommend that you think of new ways to get a kick out of the arrival of a new year. The life you save could be your own.

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