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Herman: Texas lawmakers battle over celebratory gunfire

The legislative effort against celebratory gunfire into the air — an odd and dangerous pastime that almost killed the lawmaker sponsoring the bill to ban it — is inching along, but not without a committee hearing that touched on a question the panel’s chairman didn’t appreciate.

You’ll recall that state Rep. Armando “Mando” Martinez, D-Weslaco, took a bullet — apparently fired into the air to celebrate 2017’s arrival — to the skull on New Year’s Eve. He’s doing fine, but as he told the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee this week, “I was about two millimeters from not being here today.”

So Martinez filed House Bill 2583 to fill a gap he said exists in prosecuting the stupidity of firing bullets into the air. He calls his bill “a solution to a problem that should not exist.” Lots of laws are solutions to problems that should not exist, but that’s a topic for another day.

This bill would make it a misdemeanor if a person “knowingly discharges a firearm and is reckless in regard to lacking a reasonable target at the time of discharge.” The crime would become a felony if the gunfire caused bodily harm or death.

The Monday committee hearing included discussion about warning shots, how big a problem celebratory gunfire is and whether it’s a “cultural thing.” You know where discussions about whether something is a cultural thing can lead. We’ll get back to that in a moment.

Committee member Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, said celebratory gunfire is a big problem in his part of the state. “What goes up comes down,” Canales reminded us lest we forget.

“It’s idiotic. It really is,” he said and invited anybody who doesn’t think it’s a big problem to “come over to my house or come to Hidalgo County or come to Los Angeles.”

“The numbers are staggering,” Canales said. “You don’t realize how crazy it is.”

Moments later the committee heard from Joel Rivera of the Hidalgo County sheriff’s office, who said celebratory gunfire is a big problem in his border county. He told a harrowing story about a bullet that came through somebody’s roof and landed in a crib next to a baby’s head.

How prevalent is celebratory gun fire in Hidalgo County on New Year’s Eve? This prevalent: “Our patrol deputies, at 11:45 on New Year’s Eve, they have standing orders to go find an expressway, park under an overpass and don’t come out until 12:15 unless it’s an emergency,” Rivera said. His department had a deputy hit by celebratory gunfire, he said, and homes, cattle and auto dealerships have had damage from such nonsense.

Rivera said his department had suspects in the Martinez case, “but at the end of the day, it was fruitless. So it has been closed.”

The same night Martinez was hit, a woman celebrating New Year’s Eve was hit by a stray bullet in downtown Austin. Police officials didn’t immediately respond to questions about the status of that case Thursday afternoon.

And then state Rep. Terry Wilson, R-Marble Falls, had some questions for Rivera. Wilson called celebratory gunfire “sheer ignorance” and recalled that he saw plenty of it overseas during his military service.

“The bottom line is being in a Third World nation, celebratory fire is a common, everyday thing,” he said.

And then he said: “Is this a cultural thing? Because I live out in the country, too, and we don’t hear it, don’t know about it.”

Wilson wrapped up with this question for Rivera: “Is this something that is a cultural celebratory effort, like in weddings or New Year’s or whatever?”

Rivera, though pushing back against the wedding part, said this about it being a cultural thing: “I can tell you it’s probably a component of it.”

The only witness testifying against the bill was C.J. Grisham, of gun rights advocacy group Open Carry Texas, who said celebratory gunfire seems to be limited to “border towns and places like Los Angeles where gangs are prominent.”

Grisham, among other things, complained that firing a warning shot could become a crime under the bill. “I’m not a big proponent of warning shots, but that shouldn’t be criminalized if your life is in danger,” Grisham testified.

FYI, the Texas State Rifle Association also opposes the bill, claiming it’s an unnecessary duplication of current laws that can be used to prosecute people who cause damage, injury or death by firing into the air.

Rio Grande City Mayor Joel Villarreal said his border city has an ordinance barring celebratory gunfire and that an auto dealership in his town suffered thousands of dollars in property damage as a result of jerks firing into the air. (He didn’t say “jerks”; I did.)

The bill is pending in committee. Chairman Joe Moody, D-El Paso, supports it and is waiting to see if there are enough votes to get it to the House floor. He said he’ll take a vote on it Monday in committee if there are enough votes.

The Texas State Rifle Association’s Alice Tripp told me she’s “worked the Republican majority on that committee” and hopes the bill won’t get out of the committee. So we’ll see what happens. As the May 29 end of the session approaches, we’re getting into the period when time really matters.

Moody told me he was taken aback by some of the comments and questions at the hearing about celebratory gunfire as a cultural thing.

“I thought that was a fairly misguided way to approach the topic,” he said. “It seemed like it was vaguely, maybe not even vaguely, it seemed like you’re getting into race as an issue when it comes to this type of gunfire. And one of the witnesses talking about this only happens on the border and in Los Angeles. And, I don’t know, that was definitely not a fruitful part of the conversation.”

And then he told me a terrible story about two kids hit by celebratory gunfire in his hometown of El Paso.

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