Police Report a Decrease in Drunk-Driver, Gunfire Cases : Holiday: No one was wounded by shots fired to welcome the new year, but a Fountain Valley man lost three limbs when a cannon exploded.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Tougher laws against drunk driving and an educational blitz on the danger of firing guns into the air apparently worked this New Year's Eve, with reports of both being down countywide.

Cities throughout Orange County reported Wednesday that drunk-driving arrests and reports of gunshots Tuesday night and early Wednesday had decreased from previous years, and apparently no one was wounded by bullets fired into the air.

"It appears people are getting the word, hopefully," said Fountain Valley Police Lt. Dave Brokaw. "It's one of those nights that things can go wacko, but it didn't."

An education program launched several years ago by Santa Ana officials and police may be a leading reason. Officials this year distributed 10,000 flyers and posters to local liquor stores and gun shops warning that would-be revelers would be arrested for illegally shooting firearms into the air.

"Shooting a gun in the air is just as dangerous as shooting at someone you love," the poster explained, showing a mother and her daughter in the sights of a gun.

"There were dozens of shots fired around midnight," said a Santa Ana police officer, "but I am not aware of anyone being hit or any homes or automobiles being damaged by bullets falling from the sky."

In past years, falling bullets have struck people in the hands and legs, and in 1986 one of the bullets knocked out a window at Anaheim police headquarters.

This year, officers in Anaheim said reports of gunfire had decreased, and no injuries or damage had been reported. And drunk-driving arrests had decreased so much that traffic officers did not even mention them Wednesday morning when they ended their shifts.

Along with the good news came some bad.

In Fountain Valley, a 30-year-old man was severely injured when an antique cannon fired to celebrate the New Year exploded. The man, identified as William R. Batman of Westminster, lost two legs and an arm in the accident and remained in critical condition Wednesday, a spokesperson at UCI Medical Center in Orange said. The victim's fiancee and her 6-year-old son also were injured in the explosion that occurred in the back yard of a house in the 9200 block of Jasmine Avenue.

Police said the cannon apparently was taken outside near a swimming pool, filled with gunpowder, stuffed with toilet paper and fired. But when fired a second time, the cannon, about 3 feet long with a 3-inch barrel, exploded, sending pieces of shrapnel into the back of the house. Police said the force of the explosion blew out all the windows in the rear of the house.

The man who lived at the house was not injured in the blast, police said, adding that firing the cannon in the city limits violated codes. "You can't blow off things like that," said Fountain Valley Police Sgt. Larry Griswold.

Officers said they did not have the names of Batman's fiancee or her son or the friend who lived at the house.

In La Habra, police reported 1992's first drive-by shooting in Orange County, which killed a 17-year-old. The shooting, from a moving car, occurred less than an hour and a half into the new year, police said. No arrests have been made.

In Costa Mesa, a man died in an early morning fire.

But generally, police said the number of violent incidents on New Year's Eve, especially those involving gunfire, was normal or below normal.

"Everything was incredibly quiet here last night," said a police officer in Los Alamitos. "The most exciting thing that happened here was we found a little dog that was scared by the fireworks in Buena Park."

"I think the education and publicity about shooting guns in the air has really helped," said Sgt. Randy Bell of the La Palma Police Department. "I wasn't working last night, but I can tell you I didn't hear any shots fired near my home last night."

In Los Angeles County, however, sheriff's officials said they responded to 777 calls of people illegally firing guns--a dramatic increase over last year's 526 calls. Sixteen people were injured by falling bullets, compared to no injuries on last year's holiday.

The California Highway Patrol reported Wednesday that between 6 p.m. Tuesday and 6 a.m. Wednesday two people died on state highways and 580 drivers were arrested for drunk driving.

A 1990 law lowered the legal blood-alcohol limit from .10 to .08.

In Costa Mesa, where extra teams of police looked exclusively for drunk drivers, only 17 people were arrested.

"That is a lot less than other New Year eves," said Sgt. Gary McErlain.

"Without going to the statistics, I think that the education and the tough laws are helping to keep drinking drivers off the road," Bell said.

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