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Police: Shooting guns into air can be dangerous

While other cities have special warnings and enforcement, bay area authorities say they'll be vigilant tonight.

It happens every New Year's Eve: People step outside at midnight, pull out a gun and fire straight up in the air.

The problem is that the bullet comes down _ at an estimated speed of 700 feet per second.

Then there are the secondary issues.

"You're talking about people who are at least semi-intoxicated handling guns they often haven't fired before," says St. Petersburg police spokesman Dan Bates.

"What goes up will come down," says Rod Reder, a spokesman for the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office. "It's a problem every year."

Not enough, though, for formal warnings or special enforcement _ holiday staples in cities such as New Orleans, Miami and Detroit, where New Year's Eve shoot-offs often result in multiple casualties.

Police officials here say their officers will be vigilant tonight, but there is only so much they can do.

"We'd be running around with our heads cut off if we tried to run down all of them," says Pinellas County sheriff's spokesman Cal Dennie.

The last serious injury anyone can remember in this area happened New Year's Eve 1990, when a Tampa 14-year-old was shot in the face by his stepfather.

He was a firearms safety instructor. The rifle was the boy's Christmas present. The stepfather was not charged in the incident, but the boy lost most of an ear.

That happened in a residential subdivision, which is not a typical site for the holiday tradition.

Police officials say the practice is much more common in rural areas, where there is less chance of injuring an innocent bystander.

But it can happen anywhere.

Last New Year's Eve, for example, Reder and several other officers were standing on the roof of the Hillsborough sheriff's operation center in Ybor City when midnight came and at least one person started firing.

"One of the sergeant's cars got hit with a .45-caliber bullet," said Reder, who said the car, thankfully, was unoccupied. "We figured out later it must have come right over the building before it landed through the back windshield."

A 4-year-old girl was injured last New Year's Eve in Tampa when a .45-caliber, Teflon-coated, hollow-point stray bullet slammed into her left foot.

The little girl's family spoke out, urging people tempted to fire guns on the Fourth of July or New Year's Eve to remember how easily their daughter could have been killed.

Miami is making its annual plea to residents to end the custom of welcoming the New Year by firing guns into the air.

Early Jan. 1, 1997, Miami police Officer Ricky Taylor was patrolling the Liberty City neighborhood when a reveler, firing into the sky, turned his weapon on Taylor's approaching cruiser.

Taylor was struck in the head but recovered.

Miami has had at least one civilian fatality. On, Jan. 1, 1992, Laurelino Fraga died after he was struck in the head by a falling bullet as he walked through a Little Havana park.

In Florida, firing a gun in a populated area is a misdemeanor, but it becomes a felony _ aggravated battery _ if someone is hit.

If the person dies, it's second-degree murder.

In Delray Beach, a Palm Beach County city of about 54,000 residents, two men were injured just after midnight Jan. 1, 1998, by falling bullets.

Last New Year's Day in Kansas City, Mo., a man died moments after he fired a gun into the air when a falling bullet, fired by someone else, struck him. In New Orleans, five people were wounded by falling bullets. In Atlanta, a teen was hit at a downtown mall.

California, Los Angeles and Redwood City have experimented with a military device that uses sensors that detect the sound of gunfire. Those sounds are fed into computers that pinpoint the shooters' locations.

Los Angeles sheriff's officials were not satisfied last New Year's Day, saying the device could not differentiate between gunshots and fireworks.

But officials in Redwood City, a city of about 80,000 just south of San Francisco, said the number of reported gunshots went from 400 two years ago to four last New Year's Eve when it began using the device.

_ Information from the Associated Press contributed to this report.