Border-town lawmaker recalls being struck in the head by stray bullet New Year’s Eve

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'Getting people to understand that what goes up must come down you would think is a given, but it is not'

WESLACO, Texas (Border Report) — State Rep. Armando “Mando” Martinez recalls the moment three New Year’s Eves ago when he felt something hit him really hard, “kind of like getting hit on the head with a sledgehammer.”

As he embraced and kissed his wife at midnight outside with his family, a stray bullet from celebratory gunfire became lodged in his brain in this border community.

The Democrat, who represents the South Texas border town of Weslaco, said he immediately put his hand to his head and saw a trickle of blood and then turned to his wife and told her “I think I’ve been shot.”

The group of 20 children and several adults immediately took cover in a nearby garage where Martinez — who has been a paramedic and local firefighter for 20 years — began to self evaluate his condition.

Texas State Rep. Armando “Mando” Martinez is seen with his son on Jan. 10, 2017, during the opening day of the Texas Legislature, just 10 days after being struck in the head by celebratory gunfire on New Year’s Eve. (Courtesy Photo)

He said he was coherent and able to talk and see while his wife drove him to a local hospital where doctors discovered the bullet from an AR-15 rifle “went all the way through the skull and was poking my brain,” Martinez told Border Report on Monday as he recounted those first horrible moments of 2017.

He was transferred to another hospital where he underwent surgery around 7 a.m. and was out by 11 a.m. and said he opened his eyes in time to see Tony Romo throw his last touchdown for the Dallas Cowboys in a game against the Philadelphia Eagles.

The entire incident has left him feeling incredibly lucky and angry, the eight-term lawmaker said.

Since that night, twice Martinez has filed legislation in the Texas House that would have made the reckless discharge of a firearm a felony if someone was injured or killed. And as the New Year — and decade — dawns, he said he intends to file this bill again when the Legislature reconvenes in 2021.

Read the bill Martinez filed in 2019.

“I keep thinking about how many times this occurred around us and how many of those stray bullets actually fell around us and didn’t hit one of the children that were there and that’s what upsets me the most,” Martinez said as he recalled how he had been enjoying a hot bowl of menudo and watching his kids light fireworks and play basketball just moments before he was hit.

“What goes up must come down. And people need to understand that,” he said.

What goes up must come down. And people need to understand that.”

Texas State Rep. Armando Martinez, D-Weslaco

Gun experts say that smaller caliber ammunition can fall at a rate of 300 feet per second; larger caliber ammunition can fall at a rate of 500 feet per second. A bullet traveling 150 to 170 feet per second can penetrate the human skin; at 200 feet per second, a bullet can penetrate the human skull.

Martinez said he is grateful that the bullet that struck him did not hit one of the children, ages 4 to 18, that night as they celebrated in a rural part of Hidalgo County where fireworks are allowed.

They had heard gunfire, he said, but had no idea how close it was.

“Everybody was having a really good time and you could hear off in the distance some firing of weapons,” he said. “But you never really had an idea that it was so close and it was going to hit so close to home, so to speak.”

Whenever they heard gunfire, he said they rounded up the children and had them wait in the garage for a few minutes before returning to their outdoor celebration.

But law enforcement officials say whenever gunfire is heard everyone should take cover and stay in a safe spot because different weapons travel at different speeds, depending on the firing angle.

“We have found projectiles next to baby cribs; they’ll go through the roof and you just never know where these things will land, how far it will travel,” Hidalgo County Sheriff Eddie Guerra said. “It can go a good ways and have enough velocity to cause serious bodily injury.”

We have found projectiles next to baby cribs; they’ll go through the roof and you just never know where these things will land.”

Hidalgo County Sheriff Eddie Guerra

McAllen Police Chief Victor Rodriguez said if they hear gunfire his officers are warned to stay underneath protective covering at midnight on New Year’s Eve.

“I don’t believe there’s a year that goes by without people celebrating this way and some injury resulting from it,” Rodriguez said.

Celebratory gunfire is not tracked by the National Incident-Based Reporting System, an incident-based reporting system used by law enforcement agencies in the United States for collecting and reporting crime data. But enough instances in South Texas have taught law enforcement officials to protect themselves, Guerra said.

Rodriguez said his officers have seen bullets rain through roofs and strike cars, particularly right as the clock strikes midnight bringing with it the New Year and sometimes much grief and suffering.

“The most safe thing you can do is stay indoors,” Rodriguez said. “It’s not the way to celebrate. I don’t know where we, as a society, started to celebrate New Year’s Eve with guns this way. It’s not the way to celebrate the New Year. It’s not safe and it’s unlawful if it’s done within the city.”

Texas law forbids the firing of weapons in city limits, but rural counties — like where Martinez was struck — have no ordinance against celebratory gunfire. However, if a person is struck by a bullet in those areas and seriously injured or killed, and law enforcement is able to match the weapon, then Guerra said the operator can be charged with deadly conduct and that is a felony.

Hidalgo County Sheriff Eddie Guerra (Courtesy Photo)

“We’re all totally against celebratory gunfire because of the dangers it poses to the public. We caution people that it could have serious criminal consequences that will result in some hefty fines or some prison time if you’re projectile does hurt somebody,” Guerra said. “A great example is state Rep. Martinez being hit in the head and a simple millimeter away from having serious impairment or death.”

Actually, Martinez said his doctors told him he was “22 millimeters away from death.” That’s just over an eighth of an inch.

Martinez said he hopes the National Rifle Association won’t again lobby lawmakers to block his bill the next time he files it. Earlier this year his bill, HB 86, failed to advance after it was voted out of the Jurisprudence Committee but was blocked from full House consideration by the Calendar Committee.

“You hear about so many tragedies going on across the nation and across our state and for people not to step up and to think logically on how we can pass things as simple as a celebratory gunfire law that could people safe, especially during the holidays, is something that really irritates and bothers me,” Martinez said.

He added that he was offended that Texas House Speaker Joe Straus did not acknowledge his accident to other members on the opening day of the Legislature in 2017, which he attended with a big bandage on his head just 10 days after his surgery.

State Rep. Terry Canales, a Democrat from Edinburg and Martinez’s friend, said celebratory gunfire is not only a problem in South Texas but also in Dallas and Houston and throughout Texas.

Canales has a home in rural Monte Cristo, Texas, where he says he often hears gunfire while outside barbecuing with his wife and five young children.

Texas State Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg (Courtesy Photo)

“We experience celebratory gunfire all the time. Not only on holidays but on birthdays and quinceañeras,” Canales said Monday via phone. “There needs to be a greater effort to prevent and to punish this sort of behavior. But the reality is that I don’t know that we can legislate stupidity. Getting people to understand that guns are dangerous you would think is a given. And getting people to understand that what goes up must come down you would think is a given, but it is not.”

“Be responsible. Do not fire a weapon in the air,” Martinez implored folks in anticipation of New Year’s Eve.

Sheriff Guerra said aside from abstaining from celebratory gunfire, he urges Texans not to drink and drive on New Year’s Eve, either.

“We encourage people to celebrate the end of the year and beginning of the New Year but to do so responsibly,” Guerra said.

Sandra Sanchez can be reached at Ssanchez@borderreport.com.

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