Even in quiet times, South County nonprofit works to save lives

Published on: March 26, 2014

Diego and his mother Sandy Duran during a Bullet Free Sky fundraiser last year. Photo Mitch Traphagen

Diego and his mother Sandy Duran during a Bullet Free Sky fundraiser last year. Photo Mitch Traphagen

Shortly before every Fourth of July or New Year’s Eve, the television cameras and reporters come calling, and Sandy Duran once again relives the horrific night when her then-12-year-old son was brought down by a bullet shot into the air as so-called “celebratory gunfire.”

The shooter has never been found.

It is on those holidays that celebratory gunfire appears to be at its worse, and Duran’s two-year effort to educate the public about the dangers of celebratory gunfire seems to be having an effect: No one was killed in the Tampa Bay area last New Year’s Eve, no one was killed here on the last Fourth of July. But there were a few injuries. Things, it seems, are getting better. And that is, in all likelihood, largely thanks to the nonprofit organization Duran created called Bullet Free Sky, along with the help of the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office, Shooter’s World and other people helping to publicize her message.

In addition, multiple other gun shops and gun ranges have printed and promoted Bullet Free Sky’s message, including Gun Craft, Inc. in Ruskin, Aegis Tactical in Lakewood Ranch, Family Fire Arms and Smooth Action in Brandon and Shoot Straight in Tampa.

Duran and Bullet Free Sky are not anti-gun — she joined the National Rifle Association — she is, however, extremely pro-gun education. She does not want what happened to her son Diego to happen to anyone else. She does not want another mother, another family, to endure what her son and family endured beginning in the early moments of 2012. Diego went through a full year of surgeries and rehabilitation. There were moments in which his life was touch and go. Today he is a polite, charming and happy teenager, but he is still recovering from an errant bullet shot into the sky in the name of “celebration.” It was the ultimate in careless mistakes on the part of the shooter. For some victims, it is a fatal one. People have been injured and killed in their own homes, in their bedrooms, in churches and simply walking across parking lots. And every Fourth of July and New Year’s Eve, the stories emerge from across the nation.

The reality is that the risk remains omnipresent. If you think you are safe on your Sun City Center lanai on any given evening, think again. If you think you are safe in Riverview or Apollo Beach, think again. A bullet fired into the sky can travel for miles before crashing back to earth, sometimes, all too often, with horrific and even fatal results.  If you live anywhere in South Hillsborough, you are not safe from celebratory gunfire. Your child is not safe. 

Duran has devoted much of her life for the past two years to working to stop the needless carnage — not through aggressive confrontation born of anger over what happened to her son, but through education and understanding. She is tackling it head on, person by person. She knows it happens, she even understands it to a degree, but she wants it to stop. She knows that educating those inclined to shoot a bullet into the air is the key to stopping it. She believes that people are inherently good and, once they understand the danger, they will stop. There are no statistics that can show that she has changed a mind or saved a life because a bullet that wasn’t fired, a bullet that didn’t injure or kill someone, does not provide statistics.

“Two years on…because of our experience, we know that it can affect anyone, anywhere,” Duran said. “People can be shooting miles away and still impact innocent people. It is a legitimate concern for everyone out there. We just want people to be safe.”

Bullet Free Sky is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization. No one involved gets paid, and every dollar goes either toward education or for materials to earn more money to fund education. Every single dollar matters and is put to work.

Although as a fledgling nonprofit organization operating funds are an ongoing concern, Duran’s overlying interest is in creating awareness and in saving lives.

“Celebratory gunfire is far more common than we all think,” she said. “The biggest help that anyone can give us is to visit our website at and read the stories that are posted. We also have a section called ‘Get Involved,’ which allows people to print posters and fliers in both English and Spanish to help us spread awareness.”

The posters are available for download and provided at no charge.

“We would like to invite other gun ranges, shops and the public to join Bullet Free Sky in our effort to promote gun safety and responsible ownership,” she said. “All they have to do is print awareness fliers from our website and make them visible to educate people and prevent celebratory gunfire. They should also let us know via Facebook or email so that we can give them credit.”

Only after that did she mention the shirts, magnets and other small items that provide needed revenue for the organization. On any single item, Bullet Free Sky makes only a few dollars, but again, every dollar matters. Other revenue comes from donations, either through the website or during events, both locally in South Hillsborough and in Ybor City and Tampa.

On Saturday, March 29, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., Duran and Bullet Free Sky will have a booth at the Family Salsa Fest in Wimauma at 14920 Balm Wimauma Road. And then in May, the organization will have a booth at the South Shore Chamber’s annual Pigs in the Parking Lot on the 16th from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the MiraBay Winn-Dixie (formerly Sweetbay) Plaza on U.S. 41 in Apollo Beach.

Invariably, during events Duran meets someone who has used guns to celebrate in the past. She has long since passed the anger stage, if she indeed ever had it.

“It feels great to meet people who have practiced celebratory gunfire because that means we can make a difference,” she said. “Now they know how dangerous it truly is to their neighbors and even their own families.”

In addition to education, Duran is also hoping that laws can be changed to reflect the true potential impact of celebratory gunfire. Recently she met with Hillsborough County Commissioner Sandra Murman to discuss possibilities for change. She doesn’t want to restrict guns or ammunition in any way, she doesn’t want to put people in jail. She just wants the act of it to be taken seriously.

 “It’s a second-degree misdemeanor, and I don’t think that people take it seriously,” she said. “We are hoping to change that. It’s not about sending anyone to jail, it’s about preventing this from happening in the first place.”

Murman made time to hear Duran’s concerns, but the issue is one of legislative policy rather than one easily addressed by local laws.

“Safety for our children and families is important in the community, and Sandy is trying to bring this issue to the forefront,” Murman said.

According to Duran, when holidays roll around, her now-14-year-old son worries — not for himself but for others. He has largely recovered from his critical injury, but he knows far more about life’s dangers than any young man his age should know.

“His memory is always getting better,” his mother said. “I don’t think he is 100 percent yet, but with teenagers it can be hard to tell. Yes, he worries. He is not afraid, but he worries for us and for others.”

Like his mother, like Shooter’s World and the HCSO, like those who leave a five or a 20 dollar bill at their booth or buy a T-shirt from the website, he worries and then he does something about it — he is trying to stop needless tragedies and make this world a little more safe. Diego knows the dangers all too well.

Mitch Traphagen is a member of the Bullet Free Sky board of directors.