This article was published by the Economist on 5th August, 2013
“HE WHO spits up in the air, will get it back on his beard,” warns an Arab proverb. Wise words—but they are apparently seldom heeded when it comes to firing guns into the heavens. Following Iraq’s victory in a quarter-final of the under-20s’ football World Cup last month, at least four people were killed and more than 20 injured in an outburst of celebratory gunfire. Football fans are not the only culprits: across the Arab world students are sometimes injured by the hail of bullets that often follows the publication of high-school exam results. Grooms have been known to fall victim to rounds fired at their own weddings. Such tragedies lead to funerals—which unleash more salvos. In all, dozens of deaths and hundreds of injuries are caused every year by celebratory shooting sprees.
The tradition has existed for centuries and is popular well beyond the Arab world. The birth of George Alexander Louis, the third in line to the British throne, was celebrated on July 25th with a 41-gun salute in London. It is most common in places where military discipline is low, or where gun ownership is common. In America, where there are roughly nine guns for every ten people, celebratory gunfire accounts for 5% of all stray-bullet injuries, according to the Small Arms Survey, a Swiss research-organisation.
The reason for the accidents is simple enough: what goes up must come down, says Brigadier Ben Barry of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a think-tank. A 7.62 millimetre round of the sort used in Kalashnikov rifles is “quite capable of killing somebody 1,700 metres [one mile] away,” he says. “The range is less if fired in the air but if it comes back down it gathers energy and that does the killing.” On July 4th a seven-year-old was killed during Independence Day celebrations in America, by a bullet fired 1,500 metres away. Moreover, bullets falling from above are more likely to be fatal as they primarily fall on the head and upper body. A 1994 study on 118 patients treated at a Los Angeles hospital found that falling bullets have a mortality rate of 32%, compared with between 2% and 6% for general gunshot wounds.
Efforts to curb the enthusiasm of armed revelers have had little success. Iraq’s interior ministry has urged citizens to ditch the guns and celebrate in a “modern way”. Campaigns in places ranging from Macedonia to Puerto Rico have encouraged partygoers to leave their guns at home on New Year’s Eve, when many injuries occur. Twitter users in Libya tried to popularise the hashtag #notocelebullets, in vain. Aircraft have been diverted from Tripoli airport after celebratory gunfire hit a Boeing 747. There seems to be no stopping it. In June Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, pleaded with his supporters to stop the practice. His loyal followers greeted his announcement with an unleashing of salvos into the night.