Keeping American skies beautiful … and safe

Published on: July 1, 2015

By MITCH TRAPHAGEN

Sandy Duran has dedicated more than three years of her life to Bullet Free Sky. She is hoping for community involvement to help stop the practice of celebratory gunfire.  Mitch Traphagen photo.

Sandy Duran has dedicated more than three years of her life to Bullet Free Sky. She is hoping for community involvement to help stop the practice of celebratory gunfire. Mitch Traphagen photos.

Sandy Duran didn’t start Bullet Free Sky for her son or for herself. Although her then-12-year-old son was struck down by a bullet in the first few moments of 2012; although her life changed forever with nightmares that were previously unimaginable, there was no selfishness or retribution in her motives to found a nonprofit dedicated entirely to education and the safety of everyone in South Hillsborough.

Although she has a natural television presence, she doesn’t relish appearing in front of five or eight television cameras each Fourth of July or New Year’s Eve.

She doesn’t enjoy being the go-to expert when some other unfortunate individual is hurt or killed by a bullet fired as “celebratory” gunfire.

The cameras, the questions are taxing — they take a toll on her that only she knows. She never complains. She only wants to help.

She didn’t start Bullet Free Sky for her son, herself or for personal attention. She hasn’t completely dedicated more than three years of her life for any of that.

She started it for your children. She started it for you.

Sandy Duran doesn’t want you to go through what she went through in the first few minutes of January 1, 2012, when her son, while standing with his family in their peaceful, rural Ruskin front yard, was suddenly struck down by a .45 caliber bullet that silently entered his skull. She didn’t hear the gunshot — it could have been fired from three miles away. She had no idea why her son had collapsed. She had no idea why he was unconscious and bleeding from the head.

Think about that. Can you possibly imagine being in her shoes at that moment?

No, hopefully you cannot.

There is a gunman out there who has never been apprehended. The person who shot Diego Duran remains unknown.

Perhaps that person knows it was his bullet that nearly killed a child. Perhaps it could have been any number of people having fired guns into the air, all wondering but none brave enough to step forward.

And even if the shooter were caught, Florida law does not consider what happened to be attempted murder. According to Sandy, the shooter would likely be charged with culpable negligence — a misdemeanor. Despite that her son was in a coma; despite that he fought for his life; despite that, even today, his recovery continues. A misdemeanor. And a shooter that remains free of even that charge. She has long since forgiven him.

Sandy Duran does not want to take away anyone’s guns. She does not want to take away bullets. She does not want to restrict anyone from owning a gun. She does, however, very much want to educate the relatively small percentage of gun owners who behave irresponsibly with a lethal weapon.

Firing a gun into the air, so-called “celebratory gunfire,” is both irresponsible and potentially lethal. And it must stop. It nearly killed her son. It has killed scores of people across the United States and around the world, including a child in a church in Georgia.

Yes, that is correct: On December 31, 2009, a four-year-old boy attending a New Year’s Eve service at his church in Atlanta was killed by a falling bullet from celebratory gunfire. The bullet went through the roof of the church and struck the child.

No, “celebratory” is not the word the family of Marquel Peters would use to describe the horror it experienced.

For more than three years, Sandy Duran has dedicated her life to Bullet Free Sky. There is nothing easy about running a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization — particularly one in which the results of your work are difficult to measure. You can’t count a bullet that was never fired because someone she met at her booth at any number of area events learned from her.

You can’t count a life that was saved because that bullet wasn’t there, silently falling from the sky toward an unintended but potentially deadly encounter with an innocent victim.

“It’s bittersweet,” Sandy said. “On one hand, I feel we haven’t done enough. On the other, I know that we gave more emotionally and physically than we thought we could. But if there is an incident….”

She trailed off, the unspoken words being that any celebratory gunfire incident that happens means there was someone she didn’t reach.

Life at the end of 2011 was far different for Sandy and her family. They live in an almost utopian corner of Ruskin, filled with peace and tranquillity. Both she and her husband were following their passions in art and raising their children in what they thought was the safest possible place. They didn’t go out for New Year’s Eve or the Fourth of July. They stayed home with their kids, where it was supposed to be safe.

Sandy Duran, founder of Bullet Free Sky, at a Ybor Sunday Market, one of countless events she has attended over the years to educate people about the dangers of celebratory gunfire.

Sandy Duran, founder of Bullet Free Sky, at a Ybor Sunday Market, one of countless events she has attended over the years to educate people about the dangers of celebratory gunfire.

Since then, things have changed considerably. After attending countless Sunday markets and Chamber of Commerce events, meeting people one by one, always setting up the Bullet Free Sky booth and setting up a counter of free information and hanging T-shirts that help to spread the word and pay the bills, she is shifting the focus of Bullet Free Sky to reach out to younger people, to help educate them in the basic physics involved in shooting a bullet into the air. What goes up will come down — and in a place that you can’t predict.

“It’s like putting a blindfold on someone, giving them a gun and having them walk around just randomly firing,” she said of celebratory gunfire. “There is always a chance of hurting or killing someone.”

She has worked with Hillsborough County Commissioner Sandra Murman, who has looked into Florida laws — celebratory gunfire is a second-degree misdemeanor in Florida, and various bills associated with it, and none directly addressing it, have failed in Tallahassee. She hopes that one day firing a gun into the air, unintentionally endangering, wounding or killing an innocent person, will become a felony offense.

Sandy also has worked closely with Shooters World and Aegis Tactical, and both have provided tremendous support. Just last week a gun shop in St. Petersburg contacted her — they would like to distribute her fliers to their customers. The new owners of the Suncoast Gun Show want to distribute her information.

Sandy and Diego with Larry McKinnon of the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office during a past July 3 press conference.

Sandy and Diego with Larry McKinnon of the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office during a past July 3 press conference.

And she has worked closely with Larry McKinnon of the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office. It is through that partnership that next school year the HCSO will bring Bullet Free Sky information to young people in Hillsborough County schools. Soon she will begin work on a professionally produced video, a public service announcement that tells the story for young people. It will be her second PSA. But she also wants to talk to you.

“My main message would be that a lot of people have been supportive of Diego and his story,” Sandy said. “We are very blessed that he is doing as well as he is. But please don’t think that just because Diego is better that the situation is better. People are still celebrating with gunfire. I don’t want what happened to Diego to happen to anyone else. I really hope for people to help spread the word. We have free fliers that can be printed from our website.”

She is taking a long-term view in focusing on young people and schools. But she also hopes for increased community involvement — if nothing else, to keep it as an issue that people will talk about. Just talking with friends and neighbors can help to stop it.

“People often say, ‘I don’t have guns so it’s not my problem.’ It is their problem because everyone should take this personally,” she said. “Not for my son’s safety, not for Bullet Free Sky, but for yourself and for your family. Everyone is at risk. It can affect anyone. It’s worth talking about this.”

If you think you are safe, think again. A bullet fired from the edges of Ruskin or Wimauma can reach into the seemingly safest, quietest neighborhoods in Sun City Center. A bullet fired on the outskirts of Riverview can reach into the most tranquil of subdivisions.

“The possibility of someone having their life taken is always there as long as there is celebratory gunfire,” Sandy said.

It would be difficult to find more gentle spirits than those of Sandy Duran and her family. That violence reached them, into their own front yard, is almost unimaginable. In response, she never sought vengeance, she set out to help: you, your children, your neighbors. And now she is hoping the community will help. She wants to be a mom to her children. She doesn’t want to have to stand in front of cameras on holidays. She hopes the community will pick up her voice to stop a needless, senseless threat to us all.

It’s simple: This Fourth of July, don’t celebrate with guns. Keep the American skies beautiful … and safe. And keep talking about celebratory gunfire, print up a flier. Doing so can and will help.

For more information about Bullet Free Sky, visit www.bulletfreesky.org. The organization is also on Facebook at www.facebook.com/BulletFreeSky and at www.facebook.com/friendsofdiegoduran. The Twitter feed is at twitter.com/BulletFreeSky

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

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