Police respond to 65 calls of possible gunfire over July 4th weekend

Despite that number, a police officer says celebratory gunfire is a downward trend

Update #1 — July 8, 2014; 8:35 AM

The Richmond Police responded to 65 calls from city residents reporting possible gunfire on the nights of July 4th and 5th.

Police spokesperson James Mercante said that on July 4th alone, police responded to 49 calls from residents reporting the sounds of possible gunfire between 9:00 PM and 2:00 AM. On July 5th, the evening of the postponed RVA Fireworks on the James event, police responded to 16 calls in the same time frame.

“Those are calls Richmond police responded to, but there’s really no way of knowing whether it was actual gunfire or maybe fireworks going off,” Mercante said. “All they can do is respond and see what they can find out.”

Ahead of last week’s July 4th holiday, Major Steve Drew of the Richmond Police–a nearly 20-year veteran of the force–said celebratory gunfire in Richmond has decreased over the years (see below).

But the death of a seven-year-old Chesterfield boy killed by a stray bullet last year on July 4th prompted state lawmakers to increase punishment for anyone who fires a gun “with no discernible or designated target within two miles of any occupied building” in Virginia to curb celebratory gunfire (see below).

Back in 2012, City Council unanimously approved outlawing the discharge of all firearms in the city.

Mercante said police will likely know later this week how many guns (if any) officers confiscated while responding to the July 4th and 5th calls.

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Original — July 01, 2014

The phrase “celebratory gunfire” is an oxymoron to Major Steve Drew of the Richmond Police.

“Firing a firearm into the air is in no way celebratory,” Drew said. “What that is is illegal gunfire and it is not tolerated.”

Celebratory gunfire–what Drew calls “promiscuous shootings”–gripped Richmond’s attention last year when seven-year-old Brendon Mackey of Chesterfield was struck in the head by a stray bullet while he walked to a July 4th fireworks celebration. Mackey died the following day, prompting national media coverage and discussion on how to curb celebratory gunfire.1

In response to Mackey’s death, the General Assembly passed HB-810, known as Brendon’s Law, earlier this year. The bill, introduced by Delegate Betsy Carr (D – Richmond), makes firing a gun “with no discernible or designated target within two miles of any occupied building” a Class 5 felony (up to 10 years in jail) if the discharged bullet kills someone. “When a round is fired up in the air…that projectile is coming down,” Drew said. “It’s extremely dangerous.”

It’s also illegal. In April 2012, City Council unanimously passed ordinance 2012-55-39, which updated Sec. 66-342 of city code that prohibited discharging firearms on public property to include private property as well. “You can’t fire a gun in the city,” Drew said. “We’re not hunting deer on Broad Street.”

Yet that doesn’t stop local gun owners from expressing their patriotism by firing rounds into the sky on July 4th. But Drew, who’s been with the Richmond Police for nearly 20 years, said celebratory gunfire has decreased in recent years.

He said in the early 1990s, celebratory gunfire was a city-wide problem. “It would go on for maybe 30 – 45 minutes. It would be throughout the city,” he said about the evenings of July 4th and New Year’s Eve. “We would go all night clearing those calls.”2

But those calls have “steadily decreased” in recent years, he said. He credits two factors. Through public meetings, police have encouraged residents to report people with guns before they hear gunshots. “If you see someone [with a gun], call the police and let us know,” Drew said.

Police also use crime data to predict areas in the city with a propensity for celebratory gunfire. “Placing officers in those area hours before” has helped curb offenses, Drew said.

Drew asks that residents report any noise that they believe could be gunfire. “I’d rather check it out and [it] be nothing,” he said.

Reports of possible gunfire inevitably put officers on edge. “Officers don’t know what they’re going to run into,” Drew said. Sometimes officers may discover the noise was fireworks. Sometimes they’ll find shell casings in the street. Sometimes they may come upon someone who’s holding a gun. “It’s a dangerous situation for officers. It’s a dangerous situation” for those holding a gun, Drew said. “We’ll approach [each call] very tactfully and safely.”

Despite the heightened police precautions, Drew believes 4th of July celebrations across the city will be fun. “We want the citizens of Richmond to have a great time,” he said. Firing a gun into the air isn’t the way to go about it. “What it is is just dangerous. Period.”

photo by Bill Thompson

  1. On July 4, 2013, a California man was killed and a Florida man injured, each from stray bullets. It’s unknown how many of the over 10,000 annual US gun deaths come from stray bullets. 
  2. Investigating complaints of celebratory gunfire meant people were apprehended, their weapons confiscated. “We recovered a lot of firearms,” Drew said. 
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Nathan Cushing

Nathan Cushing is a writer, journalist, and RVANews Editor.

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