How dangerous is celebratory gunfire?

What goes up must come down, right?


From watching just a few minutes of footage of the fighting in Libya, two things become clear: the rebels have plenty of bullets, and they like to use them for more than simply mowing down regime diehards.

Celebratory gunfire is a cultural staple in the Middle East, South Asia, the Balkans and Latin America—as well as certain parts of the United States. While the practice is usually restricted to small arms such as pistols and assault rifles, the Libyan rebels have taken the idea to the extreme, sending rounds from .50 caliber anti-aircraft guns skyward to mark their victories.

A BBC correspondent’s recent account of the fall of Moammar Gadhafi’s compound in Tripoli is a case in point:

“When the rebels overran Col. Gadhafi’s compound, the city erupted in gunfire. Initially, we weren’t sure if this was some sort of counter-attack … but it soon became clear, with the honking of car horns, that this very, very intense barrage of gunfire across the city was in celebration.”

Even seasoned war correspondents are remarking on the rebels’ trigger-happy ways. CNN’s Sara Sidner was clearly rattled during a recent live report while ecstatic fighters emptied their magazines into the air, and CNN anchor Michael Holmes—no stranger to dangerous situations—was recently caught on tape asking, “Is this necessary?”

In any event, the mood is decidedly less celebratory wherever these bullets fall back to earth. Studies spanning the past 300 years confirm that bullets fired straight up reach a height of approximately 2,700 metres and hit speeds of between 90 and 180 metres per second on the way down. While much slower than the AK-47’s muzzle velocity of 710 metres per second, it only takes a rate of 60 metres per second to penetrate the skull.

To make matters worse, it is far more lethal to be hit by a falling bullet than it is to be the victim of a typical shooting. A study by doctors in California found that fatalities from regular shootings ranged from 2 per cent to 6 per cent of cases, while those from falling bullets were closer to one-third. The bullets follow a steep trajectory—either an arc or a vertical fall—and are more likely to strike a victim in the head, with enough energy to kill the unfortunate target.

As if the people of Libya don’t have enough to worry about. The battle for Tripoli may be nearing its finale, but the real danger will be the after-party.


How dangerous is celebratory gunfire?

  1. While obviously the mostly likely strike point of a bullet dropping from the sky would be the head, the probability of being hit this way should be extremely low. The size of the bullet and the small area taken up by your body from the perspective of the descending bullet, not to mention the variable of one’s physical location at the precise time the bullet reaches the end of its downward trajectory, leads me to believe this wouldn’t happen too often.  

    It would be interesting to see some stats on that, but I suspect they don’t exist in any reliable form.

    So in short: “How dangerous is celebratory gunfire?” I suspect not very.

    • mayer but one needless death is still too much

      • Well sure, I’d agree with that, who wouldn’t? In fact it’s practically a platitude, wouldn’t you say?

        This is a seemingly completely unneccesary risk, but given it’s extremely low likelihood and the fact that this behaviour seems to be linked to culture and significant events, I doubt very much that you’re going to see it disappear any time soon.

        In fact you’d probably get laughed out of town if you brought it up in Libya at the moment.

        • or be shot for not wearing hijab

          • You had to include hijab ..  Please do provide the name of anyone shot.

    • There was a mythbusters where they tested some falling bullet things in the middle of the desert.  The straight-up tests were wholly unpredictable because they had no ballistic trajectory.  Off by even a few degrees though and it follows a ballistic trajectory and there’s some hope of finding the thing, though the spread is still significant.  I think the primary concern would be if an entire city is in the streets shooting their guns in the air the probability that SOMEONE gets hit is pretty darn high.  I mean if say 0.1% of the city’s area is covered in heads, then if you fire off 20 shots from your AK, that’s a 1/50 chance you just hit someone, not that you’ll ever know that you did because it’s probably going to land a few hundred meters away.

      • Actually, 0.1% would translate into a 1/1000 chance of being struck if I’m not mistaken.

        To put that into perspective, that’s not much more likely than your average North American being struck by lightning over the entire span of their lifetime, which various calculations put at somewhere between 1/2000 to 1/3000.

        In other words it’s really really really unlikely.


        • you missed the 20 bullets part – the chance for one bullet is 1/1000, for 20 bullets thats 20/1000 or 1/50, they’re not all going to come down at the same spot.  Now have 1000 people each fire 20 bullets in a city where people are crowded into the streets taking up 0.1% of the area of the city…   and you have 20 being struck…  0.1% might be a high estimate though for area covered by people.

          • Hmmm.

            I could be wrong, but it was my understanding that you can’t just add probabilities like that? I’m thinking of the “gambler’s fallacy” in this case.

            For example, if I flip a coin 50 times and it comes up heads everytime, the chance of flipping heads on the next flip is still 50%.

            So for each bullet, the chance of hitting someone (if we accept 0.1%) is still 1/1000 for each bullet and every bullet with no additive effect.

            I’d also suggest that the constant movement of people confounds the math, not to mention whether they’re indoors or under some form of cover or not.

            In any case I maintain that being struck in such a manner would be extremely rare, which is probably why they haven’t learnt any better, but of course it’s still a really stupid risk to take given the stakes.


          • It depends what you’re measuring.  The number i was using is expectation value.  Which is simply a matter of multiplying the probability of one event*the number of attempts.  i.e. for 1000 bullets and 1/1000 chance to hit, this would come out as 1, while the truth is a distribution from 0-1000 hits with a mean value of 1 hit.  The distribution for N success/fail attempts would be P(r hits in n shots) = P(hit)^r*P(miss)^(n-r)*nCr.  For the case of noone getting hit it’s very simple: P(miss)^n.  So for the case of 20 shots with 1/1000 chance to hit each, the chance of noone getting hit is: 98.01% or just a little more than 49/50.  The reason this is slightly more than 1-the expectation value is that there is a minuscule chance that more than 1 person got hit in those 20 shots, and the expectation value includes that possibility.  For the case of 1000 shots at 1/1000, there’s still a 36.8% chance that noone got hit, but now very real probabilities that more than one person was struck.  On average 1 person will be hit per 1000 attempts.

          • @IDxiv:disqus 

            I’m going to have to look at that in more detail, but let me just say: one of the more interesting conversations I’ve had here! LOL


  2. I’m with the CNN reporters. Celebratory gun fire is never necessary, except at weddings held in certain parts of Alberta.

  3. Celebatory gunfire shows a lack of military discipline. Once you have taken a position, you have to be prepared for the enemy to return and try to take it back. The existence of helicopter troopships can allow an enemy to return very quickly. When you consider how unpopular Gaddafi was, and how much support the Libyan rebels have had from NATO, Gaddafi would have fallen much sooner if the rebels had been more disciplined. 

  4. Agreed: celebratory fire is totally unnecessary, and an obvious sign of lack of military discipline.  But then who says the rebels are military.

    As to the risk of harm caused by a bullet in free fall: we had a similar discussion with our U.N. contingent lawyer when I was in Haiti as part of UNSMIH.  He claimed that a bullet hitting the soil would have the same velocity as when leaving the muzzle.  He also admitted he knew nothing about firearms ballistics.  The reality is that a bullet loses a lot of it’s lethality once it has lost it ‘spin’ induced by the rifling in the barrel.  It then tumbles and has significantly less capacity to do harm at identical velocities when tumbling.

  5. Sure, the odd person might die, but how boring a celebration it would be without gunfire. . .

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