- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 5, 2002

D.C. police haven't yet managed to stop people from firing illegal guns in the air to celebrate New Year's Eve.
They should look north to Baltimore, where a special unit of 150 plainclothes officers nabbed more than 100 people on weapons charges New Year's Eve, three of whom were shot by police during the cowboy-style roundup. They also seized 130 guns.
Like the District, police departments across the region want to put an end to what some have called the "unspoken, seriously reckless … fatal tradition."
"Bullets have a power and a trajectory that's beyond the perception of people," says Montgomery County Police spokesman Derek Baliles. "A randomly fired bullet can easily penetrate the wall of a house when it goes up, it's going to come back down, and whatever is in its path is in danger."
One person experienced that danger firsthand on New Year's Eve in Baltimore. Ferra Diggs, 19, of East Baltimore, was looking skyward to see the annual fireworks display at the city's Inner Harbor on when a bullet fell from nowhere and embedded itself in her forehead.
Police said Miss Diggs is in good condition after having the bullet removed at the University of Maryland Shock Trauma Center. "We don't know where that bullet came from. It was like it fell out of the sky," said Baltimore city police spokeswoman Regina C. Averella.
"It is a serious problem, and we're doing everything we can to combat it," Mrs. Averella said.
In the District, the average number of calls reporting the sound of gunshots to D.C. police "increases dramatically" New Year's Eve, according to Sgt. Joe Gentile. Between 8 p.m. on Dec. 31 and 5 a.m. on Jan. 1, there were 107 such calls, he said.
D.C. Metropolitan Police Department Chief Charles H. Ramsey on Thursday told WTOP radio's "Ask the Chief" program that the phenomenon indicates "a crazy, dangerous tradition."
But police haven't taken any precautionary measures to combat it. Officers respond to calls on New Year's Eve, Sgt. Gentile said, but rarely are they able to make arrests for the crime.
"An officer gets a call for sound of gunshots, and when he arrives on the scene, there's nobody there," he said.
The problem is a matter of changing people's attitudes toward guns, Chief Ramsey said. People are mistaken if they think it's not dangerous because they're not aiming at anything.
The discharge of guns on New Year's Eve may be classified as an "urban tradition," police say.
In Montgomery County, for example, there were no confirmed incidents of gunfire on New Year's Eve this year, according to Officer Baliles. Fairfax County police also reported no incidents on New Year's.
Sgt. Kim Chinn of Prince William County police said there were no incidents there either, adding that she doesn't remember any during her 17-year tenure in the county. "We don't have a major problem with that here," she said.
In Prince George's County, however, police said they received at least 33 calls reporting the sound of gunshots between midnight and 12:15 a.m.
"On a normal night, we usually get just a handful of those calls. But during that 15-minute period on New Year's, it's a significantly higher number," Capt. Andrew Ellis said. "I think it's safe to say that it is more of an urban problem. But here, there's generally a fair number of people firing off weapons around midnight."
Baltimore's approach of dispatching undercover officers to confront offenders "carries its own risks," Capt. Ellis said. "The key to reducing these incidents is public education."
During recent years, tougher laws and public-awareness campaigns have been put in place around the country.
Lawmakers in Arizona in 1999 made firing a gun into the air a felony, punishable by up to a year behind bars. The law came in response to the death of a 14-year-old girl, who was hit by a stray bullet in June of that year.
Anyone caught shooting at midnight on New Year's Eve in Louisiana faces a two-year minimum jail sentence for the crime.
In Detroit, police rely heavily on a public-education campaign called "Bells Instead of Bullets," which started in 1996 after an elderly woman was killed by a stray bullet on New Year's Eve. The campaign includes posters put up in schools, as well as billboards and television ads.


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