Every year starting around Memorial Day, Oakland residents find themselves confronted with an unpleasantly frequent question: was that noise fireworks or gunshots?
Telling gunshots apart from fireworks: the basics
- Most gunshots and fireworks register between 120 and 140 decibels (a measure of how loud a noise is). But the human ear is remarkably good at telling them apart, say experts
- Gunshots typically don’t overlap. Each “pop” is followed by a brief pause, sometimes silence
- The exception is with celebratory gunfire or a gunfight, when there’s rapid fire or multiple people shooting
- The sound from fireworks radiates in all directions, while gunfire follows the direction the barrel is pointed
- The sound of gunfire will travel further than the average firework, but the “boom” of larger professional fireworks can travel for miles
All fireworks are illegal in Oakland, but certain neighborhoods are deluged with explosions, especially around the Fourth of July and a few other holidays like Lunar New Year and New Year’s Eve. From little bottle rockets to mortars with concussive blasts that set off car alarms blocks away, fireworks can be a lot of fun and an integral part of some cultural events. But fireworks—especially the more powerful and dangerous kinds that aren’t legal anywhere in California—can also leave humans and their pets cowering because of traumatic levels of noise. They’re also a fire hazard.
The city of Oakland fines anyone caught in possession of fireworks, starting at $1,000 for the “safe and sane” smaller explosives and sparklers all the way up to $10,000 and jail time for possession of “large quantities of fireworks.”
Still, that does little to deter people from lighting off arsenals of commercial-grade explosives into the air on holidays.
Firearms are a different story. While people can legally and responsibly own guns within Oakland city limits, firing them—especially indiscriminately into the air to celebrate the Fourth of July or for any other reason—is obviously a crime and a threat to public safety. When those bullets go up into the air, they come down on unsuspecting targets.
Last year, two people were killed and multiple people were critically injured as a result of Fourth of July celebrations involving guns. Then-Oakland Police Chief LeRonne Armstrong said celebratory gunfire injured five people at an A’s game—part of what he described as “12 hours of nonstop chaos.”
Unfortunately, guns are also often used in the commission of crimes in Oakland, including robbery, assault, and murder, and gunshots happen all over the city throughout the year.
All that said, being able to differentiate between fireworks and gunshots can be an important public safety skill for anyone who lives in Oakland. But is it possible to tell the difference?
Subtle differences between gunshots and fireworks
In terms of loudness, guns and fireworks sound similar, registering between 120 and 140 decibels, although large fireworks that explode closer to the ground can make even more noise.
While many of the fireworks sold out of car trunks across Oakland can release explosions much more powerful than the average handgun or even assault rifle, experts say the patterns at which they ignite and explode are the key to distinguishing them from gunfire.
Oakland Police Department Public Information Officer Candace Keas said gunshots are typically much louder and sharper than fireworks, creating a sudden, lower frequency sound that is often followed by a brief silence.
“Gunshots are often heard in quick succession, whereas fireworks usually have a more rhythmic, predictable pattern,” Keas said. “It’s important to note that both celebratory gunfire and fireworks can be dangerous, and both will not be tolerated in the City Of Oakland.”
Tom Chittum is a former assistant director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, a federal law enforcement agency, and he now works as the vice president of analytics and forensic services at SoundThinking, a company that deploys a technology called ShotSpotter in various cities, including Oakland. ShotSpotter uses microphones throughout the city to detect and report gunfire to authorities. Chittum says the pattern of sound is the big differentiator.
“If you throw out firecrackers, it varies. It’s up and down. It’s kind of sporadic, depending on how you’ve lit them. Sometimes they’re overlapping,” he said.
Gunshots are different. “A human being can only pull the trigger of a gun so fast.”
Gunshots can overlap, of course, if two or more people are firing weapons at the same time, like in a gunfight. But Chittum says guns will still give off a different, distinct pattern compared to a pack of fireworks exploding.
One of the biggest challenges to telling the two apart has to do with the fact that gunshots and fireworks are often a surprise. “The human ear is pretty good about distinguishing gunfire. But it’s not always easy, and it’s especially difficult on single rounds,” he said. “Like if you’re sitting there in your house, you’re not really prepared to listen, and all of a sudden you hear pop. Was that gunfire? Well, you don’t have an audio recording that you can rewind and listen to again. You don’t have a snippet of that gunfire to share with the police so they can hear it.”
Chittum said unlike fireworks, which tend to explode out in all directions at the same speed, gunfire makes a directional pattern because it’s caused by gasses coming out the end of a barrel. His company’s ShotSpotter technology takes this into account when attempting to determine whether a loud noise was fireworks or gunshots. Shotspotter technicians look at how many sensors were activated and how far away.
And while different guns make different types of sounds—like a “boom” of a shotgun or a “crack” of a rifle—the human ear is better at detecting those differences than ShotSpotter sensors, which can’t differentiate between a gun’s caliber.
A noisy time of year for Oakland
The Fourth of July creates more ShotSpotter activations than any other time of the year. According to the company, about half a billion loud noises were picked up by their sensors across the country on July 3 and 4 last year. Just over 3,000 of those were determined to be gunshots.
While rowdy Oakland summer nights may be permeated with booms and pops, Chittum said guns being fired—even into the air for what some may consider fun—shouldn’t be brushed off.
“You have to take gunfire seriously, even though it’s celebratory and not aimed at a specific person. It’s still dangerous,” he said. “And the fact of the matter is, much of the gunfire that occurs during this period of time still is aimed at specific people.”
Oakland police have a hotline and online reporting tool for people to report illegal fireworks and encourage people to call 911 to report gunshots.
“A lot of gunfire that occurs in urban areas goes unreported to 911 for a variety of reasons, some of which you can probably just guess,” Chittum said. “There are communities that have grown numb to it. They have resigned themselves to living with it. They think the police don’t care about them and wouldn’t come anyway if they call.”
But often, people aren’t sure if the noise they heard was actually gunfire, so they opt on the side of not reporting what they hear as to not tie up 911 because they don’t have enough information to guide authorities in the right direction, Chittum said.
“The highest use of this tool is locating gunshot wound victims and rendering aid to them quickly,” Chittum said.
Chittum said ShotSpotter data shows there were 117 cases in 2020 and 2021 where no one called 911 for a gunshot wound victim in Oakland.
A 2019 study published in the Journal of Trauma and Acute Care Surgery looked at ShotSpotter’s impact on getting gunshot wound victims to the hospital in Camden, N.J. Researchers found a ShotSpotter activation “significantly reduced” both the response time for emergency services and the time it took to transport a person to the hospital. But of the 627 shootings over a nine-year period reviewed, less than a third spurred a ShotSpotter response.
Chittum said while ShotSpotter is helpful in filling the gaps when people don’t report gunshots to police, it still isn’t a cure-all.
“Sometimes 911 callers can offer details that ShotSpotter can’t provide. We don’t have a description of suspects,” Chittum said. “If a private citizen thinks that they have heard gunfire, they should call the police.”