Police: Gunfire has no place in New Year's Eve celebrations

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By Jennifer Thomas By Jennifer Thomas

PHOENIX -- While some people consider celebratory gunfire a New Year's Eve tradition, police throughout the Valley do not, and they will be on the lookout for random gunfire as the calendar flips from 2012 to 2013.

Celebratory gunfire is an issue every New Year's Eve, but shooting a gun into the air within or into city limits is a felony under Shannon's Law.

Shannon Smith was killed by a stray bullet while talking on the phone in the backyard of her Central Phoenix home on a June evening in 1999. The bullet was fired from one two miles away. Shannon, who died instantly, was just 14 years old.

"This is still an unsolved case in the city of Phoenix," Sgt. Tommy Thompson of the Phoenix Police Department said during a Monday morning news conference.

"That person probably today doesn't even realize that he or she killed this beautiful young woman," former Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon said.

At the time of Shannon's death, firing a gun into the air was a misdemeanor.

Shannon's parents launched a campaign to implement harsher penalties for those caught firing randomly. While Gordon and many community groups gave the Smiths their full support, groups like the National Rifle Association opposed the legislation.

Enacted in July 2000, Shannon's Law made firing into the air a Class 6 felony, which means if you pull the trigger to celebrate the turning of the year, you'll be committing a serious crime.

"A person who with criminal negligence discharges a firearm within or into the limits of any municipality is guilty of a class 6 felony," reads the Arizona Revised Statues 13-3107.

As with any criminal case a plea deal for a lesser offense is a possibility, but that all depends on the prosecutor.

Police and prosecutors have made it clear that they are determined to arrest violators and charge them to the fullest extent of the law.

"The Maricopa County Attorney’s Office enforces a strict policy which forbids their attorneys from reducing the charges to anything less than a permanent felony under most circumstances," according to the website of criminal defense attorney Joshua Davidson.

A Class 6 felony is the lowest ranking felony offense but because a weapon is involved the charge can be classified as a "dangerous offense." That means those convicted, even if they are first-time offenders, are not eligible for probation and are usually sentenced to mandatory prison time -- a minimum of 1.5 years and up to three years. There are also significant fines that can be imposed.

A big component of Shannon's Law is education. In the years since the law was enacted, police have made a concerted effort to spread the word about the dangers of random gunfire. That effort has paid off. In the past several years, random gunfire calls on New Year's Eve have dropped from a peak of 750 to just 150.

"Together, by educating our community, we've been very successful in reducing the amount of random gunfire," Thompson said.

Despite the major improvement, police say even one call is one too many.

"Tonight, we want to start out 2013 in the right way -- by people enjoying themselves, having a great time with their families and friends," Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton said. "We want to have the safest New Year's Eve in the history of the city of Phoenix.

"One way to do this is to stop this practice that has happened in our city -- the random gunfire," he continued, explaining that last year there was a slight uptick in the number of random gunfire calls in Phoenix. "We want that to be an anomaly. We want that number to continue to go down. We want that number to be zero."

Gordon said Shannon's Law is not about guns and gun ownership, but rather "about common sense and safety."

To that end, residents have to report what they see, Gordon said, wrapping up with a simple reminder.

"It's so obvious. What goes up comes down, but it comes down with the force to kill," he said.

"Celebrate the New Year by hugging your children, not [by] pulling out a weapon and discharging it into the air," Phoenix Police Chief Daniel Garcia said, promising that officers would be out in force, looking for violators and making arrests.

This is the 10th year that Phoenix Police Department is conducting its "Shannon's Law Operation" on New Year's Eve. Police will have Neighborhood Enforcement Teams out in the community, passing out fliers and arresting violators.