AUSTIN (KXAN) — There is no shortage of clamorous noises at the stroke of midnight ringing in the new year. Some shoot off fireworks, others take to the streets to bang pots and pans and some folks may shoot celebratory gunshots into the air.
On Jan. 31, 2016, Texas State Rep. Armando Martinez (D-Weslaco) almost lost his life to the latter.
That evening, he remembered feeling a little under the weather but decided to go out into the country, slightly outside of Weslaco, to fire off some fireworks for his wife, kids and their friends. As midnight approached, the kids set up the fireworks in anticipation of 2017.
New Year rang in, his kids lit the fireworks, and Martinez gave his wife a New Year’s kiss. When he broke away from his wife, he recalled warning his kids not to get too close to the flames. That is when he felt a searing pain in the back of his head.
“I put my head down and, I said, ‘I got hit,’” Martinez recalled. “Initially, I thought it was a firework, but it just hurt so bad… I said, ‘I need to go to the ER’,” he continued.
Martinez had a CAT scan, and the doctor determined there was a bullet so deep they needed to have a neurosurgeon remove it. Martinez recovered.
“I often think if it would have hit my wife, or that would have hit one of my kids, maybe they wouldn’t be around today.”
Celebratory gunfire is the act of shooting a shot or several rounds into the air at the stroke of midnight. In Texas, if someone is caught recklessly firing their gun inside the corporate city limits of a town of over 100,000 people, they could be charged with a Class A misdemeanor – a fine of up to $4,000 and a jail sentence of up to a year. It is still illegal to recklessly fire a gun in smaller cities, according to statutes, it is a Class B misdemeanor.
“Individuals that are doing it believe that it is harmless, however, [it is] quite the contrary,” said Seargent Bryan Washsko of the Texas Department of Public Safety. “What goes up must come down. There are several documented cases in Texas in the last few years of people who have been killed and seriously injured from these bullets that are raining down.”
Washko said he was working on the night of New Year’s Eve 2018 in San Antonio. Officers with the San Antonio Police Department warned Washko and his partner to find an overpass to hide under at midnight because of celebratory gunfire.
He thought they might be exaggerating, but then at midnight, “you could just hear the thousands of rounds going off just in our area alone – automatic gunfire [and] semi-automatic gunfire. It was a very dangerous situation to be in. And you know, when that many tens of thousands of rounds go up, they’ve got to come down,” Washko said.
Nicole Golden of Texas Gun Sense said the laws on the books surrounding celebratory gunfire could be more restrictive.
“Texas doesn’t have any truly comprehensive laws around celebratory gunfire or reckless discharge of a firearm,” Golden said. “We have recommended for years now to address this. [It is] an entirely preventable situation.”
In Texas, it is illegal to carry a firearm while intoxicated in public, but “on private properties, there are no restrictions on firing any kind of firearm while under the influence,” Golden said.
“We could strengthen penalties. We can make the laws around intoxication more consistent,” Golden said. “We can expand the existing law to cover smaller cities and towns rather than only those with populations of 100,000 people and more,” she continued.
Texas Rep. Martinez filed a bill in 2017, the year a bullet hit his head, to charge anyone who shoots a celebratory gunshot with a Class A misdemeanor or a first-degree felony if the bullet causes serious harm. The bill was unsuccessful.
“Unfortunately, you know, you have people that think that this is a gun legislation,” Martinez said. “This has everything to do with safety and making sure that people are responsible. Because I know growing up, and even teaching my children, is that you want to be a responsible gun owner, not irresponsible. And it’s the irresponsible ones that we need to worry about.”
Martinez said he is drafting another bill related to celebratory gunfire that he will file before the next session, he said.
“We can strengthen a law to make sure that people are aware that if they’re caught doing this, there is going to be consequences, and we need to hold them accountable for that,” he said.