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On July 3, a fundraiser to celebrate independence, for our nation and from fear

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image Not a victim, a survivor and then some: 14-year-old Diego Duran surrounded by his mother and the board of directors of the organization she founded named Bullet Free Sky. From left are Kat Lapersonerie, Pamela Vasquez, Sandy Duran, Mitch Traphagen, and K

Celebratory gunfire is 100 percent preventable — there is no doubt about that. In this case, there is something that we can do. We can stop this. On July 3 at the Firehouse Cultural Center, you can help.

By Mitch Traphagen
Fifteen-year-old Brandon Reid was sitting in his own home as he watched the Miami Heat win the championship last week.

He stood up to tell his mother the news and was shot in the head by a bullet that crashed through a sliding glass door in his home. The teenager, who is now recovering after doctors removed the bullet from the lower right side of his head, was a victim of celebratory gunfire. Someone, somewhere within a few miles of his home shot a bullet into the air and it crashed through a glass door and into the 15-year-old boy’s skull.

Shooting people in the head is no way to celebrate.

That is the message that Sandy Duran of Ruskin has been trying to get out ever since her son Diego was critically wounded by celebratory gunfire while watching New Year’s Eve fireworks in his own front yard in Ruskin a year and a half ago. One moment the Duran family was watching the sky light up in celebration, the next they saw their 12-year-old son fighting for his life near the doorstep of their small, peaceful home. 

Diego is still recovering from that injury but his mother, Sandy, has made it her mission to prevent other families from suffering through the same needless nightmare they endured. That a 15-year-old boy was shot in the head in his own home in Miramar last week says her work is nowhere near complete. But she has faith that one day it will be.

In the wake of her son’s injury, Sandy Duran formed Bullet Free Sky, a nonprofit organization dedicated to educating people about the dangers of celebratory gunfire. On July 3, the organization will hold their first-ever event at the Firehouse Cultural Center in Ruskin, part celebration of the nation’s independence, along with what should be our own personal freedom and independence to celebrate without fear, and part fundraiser. The event will include food, activities for children, raffles and live music from the popular duo Kelly Emerson and Gary Garbelman.

“The whole community is invited,” Duran said. “It is a free event, it’s our first fundraiser event. As a nonprofit organization, we depend on things like this to spread the message. Celebratory gunfire is 100 percent preventable — there is no doubt about that. In this case, there is something that we can do. We can stop this. This is something that effects everybody.”

For Duran, it is also, perhaps, some personal defiance. She knows too well the unthinkable and she knows that hiding isn’t the answer.

“This is about having the freedom to celebrate,” she said. “We should be able to celebrate the Fourth of July, we should be able to celebrate the New Year without fear. In this country, we shouldn’t have to worry about this.”

There are few places anywhere in the nation that are safe from celebratory gunfire. Not all that long ago, a young boy was hit while inside of a church in Georgia. Just this year, a young girl was killed in Baltimore. There is virtually nowhere in South Hillsborough that is safe, not even a quiet place like Sun City Center. A bullet shot into the sky can travel for up to three miles. And it can crash through a roof or a lanai without the slightest bit of warning.

In the first moments of 2012, the Duran family had no warning.

“Had we known how far a bullet can travel…just because of where we lived we just assumed it was a very safe place,” she said. “We live on acres of land. This came to our very front door. We weren’t aware just how much this has happened right here in Florida, right here in the United States. The idea of not being at war with one another and having bullets falling from the sky and injuring and killing innocent people is just something we had to do something about, especially when it happened to our son.”

For Duran, the passing of time has changed her thoughts towards the shooter. The person who shot Diego has never been identified.

“In the very beginning, someone asked if I would forgive that person my response then was very sincere and that I wasn’t ready,” she said. “But now I stand in a different place. To get our word out, we started by educating ourselves. We took courses to get certified to handle firearms. I’ve read a lot and have done research. I’ve learned that judging is actually a wall, it is an obstacle. So I’ve learned to be non-judgmental. Some people do this [celebratory gunfire] as a family tradition. They are good people but they just don’t think that the bullet can travel so far. In my mind, I know that if I met that person I would invite that person to join us, to spread the word, as an experience of his own. I would ask him to help us. I have forgiveness in my heart and I’ve learned to be non-judgmental.”

In the process, she even went so far as to join the National Rifle Association as part of her research.

“With all of the news over guns lately, people assume right away that we are anti-gun,” she said. “That is not the case. I can say that in the right hands, in the right place, firearms can and have saved lives. We do want everyone to know that we are pro-gun safety and pro-common sense.”

Diego, now 14, is a mature and polite teenager who shows little signs of trauma from what he has been through. Indeed, despite undergoing medical tests as late as last week, there is a palpable calm and peace about him. Throughout the experience, even during critical moments, his response has been unchanged. “I’m good,” he says.

On July 3, a celebration will be held in Ruskin. A celebration of life and independence. In the case of celebratory gunfire, there is something all of us can to to solve the problem. Sandy Duran is on a mission to make that happen.

“It runs from 3 to 8 p.m.,” she said. “We’ll have activities from the Firehouse Cultural Center. We’ll have raffles from local businesses, a bounce house for the kids, food and barbecue and we’re really excited to have a live performance from Kelly Emerson and Gary Garbelman, who have been kind enough to offer their talent and time to perform from 6 to 8 p.m. There will also be gun safety demonstrations.”

A bullet that comes out of the sky has the power to injure, kill and change lives. Sandy Duran now sees the silver lining in the clouds that are in that sky. She knows in her heart that the needless damage can be stopped.

“First of all, it was very tragic, what happened to Diego,” she said. “And then it was a great miracle, just to have our son still alive, still with us after having survived getting hit by a bullet, going through his brain. And now, it is a big responsibility that I seek for myself that we just have to do something about this. The Fourth of July is a celebration, just put your guns away. Hundreds and thousands of other people are out celebrating, too, just like you are. This is 100 percent preventable.”

The Firehouse Cultural Center is located at 101 1st Avenue NE in Ruskin. For more information visit www.bulletfreesky.com.

Full disclosure:  I am a member of the board of directors of Bullet Free Sky. On July 3 from 3 to 8 p.m., please join me at the Firehouse Cultural Center to celebrate our nation’s independence with Diego, Sandy and so many others dedicated to the mission of keeping people safe from an unnecessary danger. For this problem, there is something you can do — all you have to do is show up. I hope to meet you there.

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