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What Goes Up Must Come Down : New Year's Celebrations--Annual Hail of Bullets

December 29, 1987|BOB BAKER | Times Staff Writer

The rural community of Cherryville, N.C., and the metropolis of Southern California will celebrate New Year's Eve the same way this week--with loud bursts of gunfire.

The only difference is that in Cherryville the folks have enough sense to stage the centuries-old custom of "shooting in" the new year, a tradition they inherited from the town's German settlers. A ceremonial musket-toting procession will go door to door all night, firing powder-filled caps into the air.

Here, by contrast, Rule No. 1 is that there are no rules. The firing will be spontaneous, continuous and uninhibited, as though it were 1888 rather than 1988 and millions of people weren't densely clustered.

And the darndest thing will happen: the same bullets that go up in the air will come down.

They'll come down from as high as 10,000 feet with enormous force, enough to easily penetrate the skin and sometimes to shatter bones, even after smashing through a roof.

If recent history is any guide, a dozen or more people in Los Angeles and Orange counties will be wounded by the random fallout of thousands of shots from pistols, shotguns and automatic weapons that turn the night into a war zone for about half an hour each year, starting at around 11:45 p.m.

Law enforcement agencies will ground their helicopters. Last year, even that didn't help. Somebody who started celebrating early hit a flying Los Angeles police chopper around 10 p.m.

Police will be very wary about responding to calls of "shots fired," in many cases refusing to do so unless there is proof of injury. Last year in Santa Ana the sheer volume of calls paralyzed police. So many calls came in that the department's switchboard went into what officials called "electronic gridlock."

Dreaded Assignment

Firefighters and ambulance drivers unlucky enough to be on duty will cringe at each assignment. Last year, rowdy crowds fired shots at firefighters answering calls in South-Central Los Angeles and the northeast San Fernando Valley. This year, for the first time, Police Department patrol cars will accompany some fire engines in those communities, as well as in East Los Angeles and Venice.

"There is no way you want to step outside," said Jerry Greenelsh, a captain at a Los Angeles County Fire Department station on the Eastside. Last year Greenelsh scraped together a collection of three dozen bullets that landed around the station.

"They start around 11 and keep on till about 4:30 in the morning. I wouldn't even stick my head out the window," said James Thomas, who lives on 42nd Place in southwest Los Angeles, a block from where New Year's Eve gunfire killed a boy two years ago.

"I feel like I ought to wear a tin hat," groused Penny McCracken, who moved to the city of Paramount in southeastern Los Angeles County three years ago from Long Beach and said she was shocked by the holiday gunfire.

"I've come to the point where I don't even flinch any more when I hear it. My place hasn't been hit, but that's just luck. I can identify Uzis, .45s, .38s, .22s. "I've got a new roof and I have to spend every holiday worrying whether I'll have to repair it."

Mothers will beg their teen-agers to stay indoors and guys who served in Vietnam will swear that this is what fire-fights sounded like. And residents of comfortable outlying suburbs, where the noise is faint, will scratch their heads and wonder why people fall prey to such insanity.

The answer, uttered with much exasperation, is that nobody knows.

Inner-City Problem

Much of the New Year's Eve shooting goes on in the Central City, which has the largest black population, and in heavily Latino communities. This gives amateur sociologists a field day; cultural explanations fly as randomly as New Year's bullets. For example, non-Latino residents whose neighborhoods are plagued with random gunfire are quick to suggest that they are victims of the traditions of rural Mexico.

"Maybe some of the behavior does carry over," said Dr. Marvin Southard, clinical director of El Centro Community Health Services in East Los Angeles.

"In Mexico big holidays are celebrated by loud displays of fireworks and shooting guns off, and since there are not, or have not been, regulations, it becomes something of a regular way of celebrating fiestas. But another thing to remember is that across all cultures the use of alcohol will lead people to do things just because they feel like doing them."

Another Reason

However, the sheer density of population in many of these communities and the higher percentages of people who own weapons for protection against crime may be as much a reason for the prevalence of gunfire.

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