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New legislation pushed by advocacy group after woman killed by celebratory gunfire on New Year’s Day

HOUSTON – Victims' Rights advocates are calling for new legislation following the death of a Harris County woman. Investigators believe celebratory gunfire shortly after the new year killed Phillipa Ashford, 61. She was shot in the neck Jan. 1 while watching fireworks with her family in the Laurel Oaks neighborhood in northwest Harris County.

"It's just a senseless death that didn't have to happen," said Rob Elder, retired Special Agent-in-Charge of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosive's Houston office.

"How difficult are these types of investigations?" asked KPRC Investigator Robert Arnold.

"Extremely difficult just because of the unknowns that you have," said Elder.

The biggest unknown is where the fatal shot was fired. Elder said a bullet could travel a mile or more, depending on various factors such as wind speed and direction. Elder also said while it is assumed the shooter fired into the air, the angle of the gun is essential.

"Was that angle, 90-degrees, was it 45-degrees, was it 20-degrees; that's all going to affect the distance that round would have potentially traveled," Elder said.

A slug was recovered from Ashford's neck, according to officials with the Harris County Medical Examiner's Office. Elder said the bullet slug can tell investigators the caliber of the weapon. However, Sheriff's officials don't want to release that information at this time.

Sherriff's officials reported receiving 150 calls about gunfire before midnight on New Year's Eve and another 145 calls after midnight. Precinct 4 Constable Mark Herman said his office received about a dozen of these calls. However, none of these calls was close to Ashford's neighborhood.

"As in many other investigations, eyewitnesses usually hold that one key," said Elder.

Elder said even if witnesses help pinpoint the location, the fatal shot was fired; investigators still have to find the gun and then put that gun in someone's hand. Elder also said the person who fired the fatal shot may have no idea they killed someone.

Victim's rights advocates are using Ashford's death and the wounding of another man in Houston as a rallying cry for new legislation.

"You actually need a code, a statute to address the issue itself of celebratory gunfire," said Houston Crimestopper's Andy Kahan.

Kahan said while there are laws on the books to address this type of behavior, warnings about celebratory gunfire go unheeded every year.

"Some people believe it's some form of entertainment or some rite of passage. I think perhaps some people don't actually believe it's a crime," said Kahan.

Kahan also wants a law where it is an automatic felony if someone is seriously hurt or killed by celebratory gunfire. State Rep. Armando Martinez, D-Weslaco, twice filed such a bill, but both measures failed. Martinez filed his bills after he was injured by celebratory gunfire.