What goes up, does indeed fall rapidly down

While there were many fireworks being set alight, there were also several repeating arms being fired into the air randomly by revelers on New Year’s Eve in Greenville.

I’ll admit, I celebrated Christmas Eve with my children and my dad firing many boxes of shells into targets — some with Tannerite attached. It was fun, it was loud, it was in a controlled situation and it wasn’t in town. 

Most of the firing I heard on New Year’s Eve probably came from small-caliber handguns, but there were some larger booms that were definitely shotguns. I also heard what sounded to be a fully automatic rifle, but that could have been a string of ladyfingers. (Didn’t sound like them though.)

While police in the area say there weren’t any injuries from celebratory gunfire this week, Greenville has seen such injuries before.

In 2017, during the Independence Day fireworks show in downtown Greenville, a young woman reported being struck by something falling from the sky and was taken to the hospital. There was a projectile of some form found in her body. Her injuries were not life threatening, but they did occur. 

It’s the same as when my oldest son was shot in the rump with a pellet gun. Had the shot gone in another place, there could have been serious damage done.

For most of my life, I thought bullets fired straight into the air posed no problems on their return to Earth. They would go up at a high rate of speed and fall back to Earth at a much slower rate of speed because of the wonderful world of physics and terminal velocity.

Much to the delight of my wife, it turns out I wasn’t 100-percent correct. 

In order to be 100-percent correct, I found a good source to tell me all about shooting guns straight up into the air: Ethan Siegel, who is a theoretical astrophysicist with a Ph.D. from the University of Florida in 2006 (That’s Tim Tebow’s freshman year). 

In 2008 Siegel wrote a story for Forbes Magazine explaining the physics behind why some falling projectiles fired from a gun can be dangerous.

For sure, not all projectiles are dangerous when falling back to Earth. I’ve been peppered by bird shot many times in a dove field with no ill effects.

But some projectiles can be quite dangerous.

From Siegel’s Forbe’s story: “…on the Moon, if the bullet went up at 1,500 miles per hour, then no matter what angle you fired it at and how long it took to come back to the lunar surface, it would come down at 1,500 miles per hour. A bullet fired away from the Moon's surface would be just as lethal as one fired across it. But on Earth, we have our atmosphere, which means we also have air resistance. A bullet fired straight up, with no wind, might reach a height of 10,000 feet (about three kilometers), but will come back down at only around 150 miles per hour: just 10 percent of the speed and with only 1 percent of the energy as the originally fired bullet.”

For a bullet to be dangerous, it needs only to be able to break the skin. 

More from the Forbe’s story: “The generally accepted threshold for breaking the skin barrier is 136 miles per hour, although some bullet/skin combinations will cause the bullet to bounce off you at up to 225 miles per hour. The pointier a bullet is, the slower it can be moving and still break your skin. (Hollow point bullets are more dangerous not because it's easier for them to puncture your skin, but because they create more damage once they do.) Bullets of different sizes and calibers can puncture skin more easily: buckshot will perforate skin at 145 miles per hour and bullets from a .38 caliber revolver will do so at just 130 miles per hour. Bullets from a 9mm handgun may max out at speeds as low as 102 miles per hour. And a .30 caliber bullet … might do so at only 85 miles per hour.”

While the potential for danger from a falling projectile is there, the uncontrolled situation in which the firearms are discharged is more alarming. The chance for an accident is just too great.

I asked Seigel for an analogy to describe the danger of randomly discharging a gun in celebration at night, here it is: “Firing a gun into the air is sort of like throwing peanuts into a crowd of people. Most of the time, it's harmless: no one gets hurt, many people find it delightful and a few people are annoyed. But every once in a while, you'll get a peanut into the mouth of someone who has a severe peanut allergy, and it's potentially lethal. You have no ability to control for it, just like you have no ability to control where your stray bullet lands. If your careless actions cause somebody to die, and innocent people tragically die in this fashion all over the country, maybe it's not worth the risk.”

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Angel Alert goes out again to the people who get out of their city trucks, wade through the water and sweep away the debris in drains to keep our city streets as free as possible from flooding. Happy birthday to Ben Mize and Lisa Cocilova. Send alerts and birthdays to the contact information below.

Jon Alverson is proud to be the publisher and editor of the Delta Democrat-Times. Write to him at jalverson@ddtonline.comor call him at 335-1155.