Celebratory gunfire like the kind that precipitated the fatal shooting of Javon Dawson at a crowded graduation party Saturday night is on the rise around Tampa Bay and the state, causing injuries and even deaths, say law enforcement officials.
St. Petersburg police had been called to break up a party of several hundred kids at Shining Light Masonic Lodge when they heard gunfire. One officer said he saw Dawson, 17, fire several shots into the air. Officer Terrence Nemeth said he shouted at the teen, but Dawson pointed the gun at him, so Nemeth fired, hitting the teen twice in the back of the shoulder and the kidney.
Police are still investigating the shooting, but they have no doubt that celebratory gunfire has become a serious problem.
This past New Year' Eve, after St. Petersburg police received 16 reports of bullets falling from the sky, including one that lodged in a teenage girl's knee, they decided to make a public service video.
"We felt we had to do something before someone got killed," said St. Petersburg police spokesperson Bill Proffitt.
The public service announcement, which was made in April and will begin airing on local TV stations the week before July Fourth, shows hotdogs grilling then a Glock semiautomatic being fired at an upward angle. A police officer warns, "If you shoot a bullet in the air, it can seriously injure someone on the way down."
The New Year's before last in St. Petersburg, a bullet fell from the sky and lodged in a woman's bra strap, and another in a man's shoulder. A third stray bullet entered a house, lodging in a wedding dress in a closet.
Officials in surrounding counties have reported a similar increase. "On New Year's and the Fourth of July, people call in more and more about hearing guns," said Dennis Ahrens, Hillsborough County Emergency Dispatch supervisor.
So far, the most serious incidents have occurred elsewhere in the state.
In South Florida on New Year's Eve 2007, Audley Ebanks, a 69-year-old Plantation man, died at a yard party of what appeared to be a heart attack. It was two days before a team of organ harvesters discovered a bullet in a vein. A medical examiner told Ebanks' family the bullet had killed him.
In Delray Beach, a 32-year-old woman sued the city in 2007 because a bullet struck her in the chest at a public New Year's celebration where merrymakers shot guns in the air.
In reaction to these incidents, House Majority Leader Adam Hasner, R-Delray Beach, introduced a bill in the Florida Legislature in 2007 to increase the penalty for firing a gun in the air. As it is, the maximum penalty is a year in jail, which is rarely enforced because it's so difficult to locate a shooter.
Hasner's bill got nowhere, said his legislative assistant, because of the difficulty finding the shooters, and because so many Floridians love their guns.
On MythBusters, the popular Discovery Channel program, stars Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman tested whether someone can die from a falling bullet.
They concluded that if the bullet is fired at an angle and has an arcing trajectory, there is a chance that when the shot lands it will still have enough velocity to kill.
"Celebratory gunfire is just a niche example of a much larger problem of very easy access to guns in Florida," said Doug Pennington, spokesperson for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.
While most agencies don't keep numbers of incidents of celebratory gunfire, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence.
Gulfport police formed a special enforcement unit for New Year's 2007 to deal with reports of gunfire.
"Between 11 and 2 here on New Year's, you can't go 30 seconds without hearing gunfire," said police spokesman Robert Vincent.
"In Orlando, there have been two recent New Year's fatalities and last year a toddler was shot in the eye from celebratory gunfire," said Jim Solomons, spokesperson for the Orange County Sheriff's Office.
The Polk County Sheriff's Office received 34 complaints of guns being shot for New Year's 2007 and 40 for New Year's 2008.
When she learned her 69-year-old father had not died from a heart attack but from random shooting, Lori Ebanks Burrows of Fort Lauderdale said she was "in total shock."
"You can't explain it. You can't get over it. It's so senseless," she said.
More than a year later police are still investigating where the bullet came from.
"All we know," she said, "is that someone shot a gun from 2 miles away."
Staff writer Dominick Tao and researchers Carolyn Edds and Cairyn Baird contributed to this report.