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Authorities discuss celebratory gunfire prevention

By Joel Hall

jhall@news-daily.com

On New Year's Eve of 2008, a bullet fired by a gun owner celebrating the new year landed in the center of Riverdale resident Arthur Hughes' dinning room. Hughes, an Army veteran of Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, wears the bullet on a lanyard around his neck as a reminder of what could have happened.

"It just missed the table," Hughes said. "If somebody had backed from the table, they would have been in the line of fire."

Fast forward to New Year's Eve 2010: Marquel Peters, a 4-year-old attending a DeKalb County church's watch night service was struck and killed -- as he sat in a pew -- by a bullet fired from miles away.

Now, just a week before Fourth of July celebrations, Hughes and a handful of law enforcement officials from Clayton, Fulton, and DeKalb counties met in Riverdale to discuss ways the community can help prevent other celebratory gunfire deaths and injuries from occurring. The first organizational meeting for "Operation Stop" took place at Riverdale City Hall on Friday. Hughes, who is leading the effort, said the purpose is to bring more attention to the dangers of celebratory gunfire, and to organize citizens to discourage their neighbors from reckless gun use.

"We're getting ready to go into our Fourth of July weekend, and people wiggle it [gunfire] into their celebrations," Hughes said. "On New Year's Eve, there is no limit. Personal property has been damaged, animal and human injuries happen, and last year, we had a child who was killed when a bullet came down in the middle of the church. We know we can't stop them [from firing weapons], but we can make them think about it."

Maj. Joseph Woodall, of the Clayton County Police Department, said celebratory gunfire is an ongoing challenge facing many police agencies, around the holidays. He said ignorance is often the culprit. "I think people see it on television, and they don't realize it is a dangerous act," Woodall said. "They don't realize that every projectile that goes up, comes back down to Mother Earth at some point. To me, it's the same as firing into a crowd. We just want to make sure people know it's an illegal, jailable act.

"The charges we put on folks ranges from reckless conduct to discharging a firearm near a public roadway," he added. "Both are misdemeanors, which result in up to a $1,000 fine, or up to a year in jail."

During the meeting with law enforcement officials, Hughes discussed several incidents dating from the year 2000, in which local bystanders had been wounded by celebratory gunfire. He said he would like to organize businesses and home owners to post signs discouraging celebratory gunfire around the holidays, and said he is working on an advertising campaign with local musicians. "We are working with some people to come up with a jingle," Hughes said. "We want it to be as strong as 'Click It or Ticket.'"

Lt. D.C. Thomas, of the DeKalb County Police Department, said the Peters shooting was a "tragic situation" in DeKalb County, and that churches and politicians can help prevent such incidents by spreading the message. "If we can get more clergy and politicians involved, the message will get out more quickly," he said. "We have to get more public awareness about it, because a lot people don't realize that it could be their child the next time."

Riverdale Police Chief Samuel Patterson said he would attempt to work with other local police chiefs to come up with an action plan. "We, often times, assume things just happen ... but people need to make these things happen," he said. "We probably need to gather a diverse group of people from across the community to talk about what exactly we want to accomplish."