Police, gun safety advocates warn against celebratory gunfire

Just two days before the Kansas City Chiefs make their second consecutive Super Bowl appearance, the Kansas City Police Department (KCPD) warned against celebratory gunfire.

“We are hopeful that we will be celebrating around about 9, 10 o’clock, another Chiefs victory and another Super Bowl, we’re very hopeful for that,” KCPD Sgt. Jake Becchina said. “One of the things we learned last year as we were celebrating is that, once again, just like around New Years and around Fourth of July, some people unfortunately chose to celebrate by shooting a gun off into the air in an unknown direction.”

Currently, shooting off a gun in city limits is a misdemeanor crime, at minimum punishable by up to a $1,000 fine and up to a year in jail. Becchina explained that those consequences are the minimum, and that’s if the falling bullet doesn’t hit somebody or something. 

Last year on Super Bowl Sunday, KCPD fielded just over 160 911 calls between 5 and 10 p.m. for celebratory-style or outdoor gunfire, a huge increase over any other normal Sunday, Becchina said.

“We want people to celebrate responsibly but they need to be safe,” Becchina said. “It is not safe to shoot a gun off in an unknown direction or up into the air.”

Becchina said bullets come back down as fast as they leave the barrel of a gun, and have the potential to damage property, roofs, cars, and injure or kill people if it strikes them.

“Every year across the country people are injured or killed from celebratory gunfire and we want people to know that,” Becchina said, “If you see somebody shooting a gun off near your home, as safely as you can call 911 to report that.”

The department has gunshot detection software in the city, which records where, when and how much, but can’t determine who is responsible or other details like what car they got into or which house they came from.

“We need the community’s help in that and so please continue to notify us through 911, if you do see somebody doing that,” Becchina said. “Most important, to whatever extent you have influence over friends, family members, co-workers, anybody you may be talking to or gathered with watching the game, celebrating the game, if you hear them talking about going to get their gun to shoot it off to celebrate the victory, please try to talk them out of it. That conversation could save somebody’s life.”

One such conversation might have saved the life of 11-year-old Blair Shanahan Lane, who was killed by a falling bullet on Independence Day nearly 10 years ago. Since then, her mother, Michele Shanahan-DeMoss, has been dedicated to making sure other families don’t have to experience similar heartbreaking losses.

“A gun isn’t something that should be used in celebration,” Shanahan-DeMoss said. “If you see something, hear something, if you have an emergency, call 911. I remind people that posting on social media that you think you heard gunfire, it may be too late. If one person the night of the Fourth of July 2011 had called 911, there may be an opportunity that Blair would still be alive.”

Honoring Blair through advocacy, Shanahan-DeMoss has worked for years with State Representatives Rory Rowland (D-29) and Mark Sharp (D-36) on Blair’s Law (HB 722), which was initially introduced in 2012.

“Being that this crime is a misdemeanor for me is heart wrenching, and I just don’t want somebody else to have to live and persevere a life like I have to without their only child,” Shanahan-DeMoss said. “Having the opportunity to increase the penalty of the crime, statistically, I believe would make a difference, so I’m eager to persevere with that opportunity and I’ll keep doing it.”

Blair’s Law would increase charges to a class A misdemeanor if a person commits the crime of unlawful use of a weapon if, with criminal negligence, he or she discharges a firearm within or into the limits of any municipality.

“If you’re caught doing it again, it’ll make it a felony,” Rowland said. “So that’s what we want to do was elevate it from being a municipal charge to being a state charge so that the prosecutors have more ability to pursue people who use celebratory gunfire in an irresponsible way. We truly want responsible gun ownership, [which] is what we’re looking for.

Rowland said politics is the “art of the possible,” which has been the challenge in getting this bill passed over nearly a decade. In trying to compromise with legislators across the aisle to get it past committees, changes have been made to help it progress.

“I feel like the legislation is a far better choice than burying a child, and I feel that if you look back, somehow, the falling bullets seem to hit children, especially in Kansas City,” Shanahan-DeMoss said. “A bullet does two things: it maims and it kills, and that is what it is intended to do. It’s not intended to be a noisemaker, something that’s brought to a party, it’s a deadly weapon.”

Shanahan-DeMoss has seen statistically that the effort to educate people on the dangers of celebratory gunfire have made a change, and she will continue speaking on the issue in honor of her daughter because losing her changed her life forever. Each year she gets hundreds of messages from families experiencing the effects of this crime. She said it’s not necessarily a specific demographic, either.

“What we want to do is curb this behavior by making it much more stringent on people who fire these guns indiscriminately, if they hit someone or don’t hit someone,” Rowland said. “Firearm responsibility is very important, and we need people to use firearms in a responsible manner, and this is what this legislation is going to do.”

On New Year’s Eve 2020, 12 houses in Kansas City were reported to have been struck by indiscriminate gunfire, though Becchina said more may have gone unreported.

“The Missouri House has shown that we can pass good legislation,” Sharp said. “This past special session, we passed legislation on making sure that we have rights and protections for our witnesses to make sure that they’re protected, and we can do the same here with this. This bill, House Bill 99, and other bills that have been filed alongside it will probably be heard this year, and probably be passed. The entire intent of this bill is to deter people from shooting their guns in the air. This bill will increase the penalties. We are trying to be tougher on this.”

This week, the Missouri House considered the Second Amendment Preservation Act (HB 85), which is designed to protect the Second Amendment of the Constitution. Rowland called it a real challenge for law enforcement throughout the state, making their jobs more difficult to carry out.

“This bill would absolutely handcuff law enforcement officials, especially on joint task forces, when you have different law enforcement agencies working in concert together,” Sharp said. “Essentially what it would do is it would mandate that law enforcement agencies do not enforce federal gun laws in Missouri. And that’s a big deal because there are some bills that the federal law covers that Missouri doesn’t have, and some of those were brought up on the floor yesterday.

Sharp said it is tough because when he and his colleagues are trying to introduce common sense gun legislation, they’re working with legislators that are filing bills like HB 85 that make it difficult. 

“We had to play this game of politics to try to find the sweet spot for something that not only that we can agree with, but something that they can agree with as well, so it puts us in a real tricky spot, but this is the best bill that we thought we could introduce because it does have more teeth to those who are shooting in a celebratory fashion,” Sharp said.

Following the Chiefs’ Super Bowl win in 2020, KCPD did not get any reports of damage due to celebratory gunfire, but Becchina attributed that to luck, not skill. The bullet that killed Blair was fired from three football fields away.

“We don’t want to wake up on Monday morning and know that somebody has been hurt or somebody has been injured from indiscriminate or celebratory gunfire,” Sharp said. “Let’s get the Chiefs to a good win, and let’s celebrate the right way, and let’s wake up on Monday morning, knowing that everyone’s safe. It takes a collective effort, tell your friends, tell your family. I want to encourage anybody to tell somebody that if they’re going to think about doing it to not do it. We all know those people who might. You need to tell them to not do it. Without that effort, it won’t happen.”

Becchina said although crowds will be smaller with COVID-19 restrictions in place, KCPD will be ready to quickly respond.

“We have a multitude of additional officers that are working on Sunday from our traffic division, from our proactive units within each patrol division, from our tactical response team and other special operations,” Becchina said. “They will be ready for basically anything, should the need arise.”

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