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Police Aim to Silence Celebratory Guns at New Year's : Festivities: Santa Ana tops the county in the number of incidents. Officials will crack down on the dangerous practice this year.

December 17, 1995|JEFF KASS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SANTA ANA — In some parts of town, the pop of gunfire around the holidays seems more prevalent than the pop of champagne corks.

"Here, [the gunfire] has always happened," said Sam Romero, a community activist born and raised in Santa Ana. "But now, it sounds like when I was in basic training in the Marine Corps."

This year, Santa Ana police will step up efforts to curb celebratory gunfire. Volunteers and police officers Friday began distributing 8,000 flyers--double last year's number--in English, Spanish and Vietnamese warning of both the legal and life-threatening consequences of celebratory gunfire.

Leading the county, Santa Ana police switchboards regularly jam up as more than 200 calls reporting celebratory gunfire tumble in on New Year's Eve.

The gunfire has not been blamed for any deaths in Santa Ana, but a handful of people in other cities such as Los Angeles and New Orleans have died from the random shooting over the years. Many cities attribute scores of injuries to celebratory gunfire, as well as thousands of dollars in property damage.

Grossly negligent discharge of a firearm--the legal term for such behavior--is a felony punishable by up to a year in county jail, said Sgt. Bob Clark, a Santa Ana police spokesman.

Santa Ana beat officers also will try to spread the word regarding the dangers of celebratory gunfire, Clark said. And eight extra officers will patrol on New Year's Eve both to deter trigger-happy revelers and to track them down.

Officials say celebratory gunfire is especially popular among Latino immigrants.

Officer Jose Vargas, who is in charge of the Police Department's Latino affairs section, said many Mexican immigrants come from small towns and villages where shooting guns into the air is a time-honored tradition that carries few consequences.

"Maybe a cow gets killed once in a while," said Vargas, who was born and raised in the village of San Martin in Jalisco state.

For the first time, the head of the Mexican Consulate in Santa Ana, Marisela Quijano--Mooneyham, has distributed a letter to the Mexican American community urging people to refrain from celebratory gunfire.

Shooting firearms into the air "is not only a danger to those around you, but be aware that jail is not the best place to end the holidays," reads the Dec. 12 letter sent to the local Spanish-language media.

Quijano, who said she made mention of celebratory gunfire at the urging of Santa Ana police and the Diocese of Orange County, asked community members to focus on the more innocent Mexican tradition of breaking pinatas.

Another city planning stepped-up enforcement in response to celebratory gunfire on New Year's is Huntington Beach. Lt. Dan Johnson, a police spokesman, said more than double the four officers who normally patrol the city's mostly Latino Oak View area will be on patrol New Year's Eve.

Celebratory gunfire, however, is not solely a Latino phenomenon. Vargas said it is common in many Santa Ana neighborhoods, and Anaheim police and Orange County sheriff's deputies say the practice is a problem in all areas they patrol.

Vargas said he conducts an informal survey of the level of gunfire every New Year's by stepping onto his balcony at midnight, wearing a corroded World War II Army helmet purchased at a swap meet for $2.50.

"Really, I don't think I need it," Vargas said. "But my wife insists I wear it."

Vargas said that, according to his ears, the amount of celebratory gunfire has been dropping off in recent years.

Clark said police statistics show that on the cusp of 1994, Santa Ana police reported 230 shots fired. This year, the figure was 209.

"We were trying to lean more toward the education of the public rather than enforcement," Clark said. "We have realized some success, but we definitely need to link it together with enforcement."

And Clark has a message for trigger-happy revelers: "Do they have loved ones or children of their own? If a bullet hit one of them, they would have a totally different reaction."

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