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Stray Shots Strike Nothing
In fiction, a bullet is a very simple thing. A bullet is a device that has some percentage chance of causing damage to a specific target. This chance can be reduced by interposing solid objects — like cars, or walls, or random bad guys — between the shooter and the target, but otherwise a bullet either hits the target or misses entirely.

And "misses entirely" means no longer exists. Unlike actual supersonic pieces of metal, a fictional bullet doesn't hit whatever lies along its trajectory in the mile or more that it can travel while retaining lethal power — it just vanishes, as if every target had something behind it to catch stray rounds (what recreational shooters refer to as a "backstop"). Even if hundreds of bullets are fired during a fight scene, there will be no casualties we don't see on screen.

And, of course, this applies to far more than just bullets — Macross Missile Massacres and Frickin' Laser Beams are equally vulnerable. And, of course, it applies to more contexts than simple gunfights — first, that which is Fired In The Air A Lot must come down, and second, except when by pure coincidence they intersect some larger celestial body, missed shots fired during a Space Battle could keep travelling with the same energy for millennia. This trope tends to go hand-in-hand with Arbitrary Maximum Range for that very reason.

Another consequence of the Rule of Perception. See also Bullets Do Not Work That Way and Imperial Stormtrooper Marksmanship Academy. One of the many factors contributing to cases of Artistic License - Gun Safety and Reckless Gun Usage. Because this trope is so common, only lampshades and aversions shall be listed.


Aversions

Anime and Manga
  • In Dragon Ball Z: Battle of Gods, of all places, Mai shoots several times at Gohan, who, being the superpowered warrior he is, deflects the bullets effortlessly. However, one of said bullets then goes on to hit Videl in the leg. Fortunately, Dende is on hand to immediately heal her, but Gohan is chewed out for showing off and not disarming Mai immediately. (Worth noting that nobody thought the gun was real until it was fired.)

Comic Books
  • In the first Queen And Country story, Tara Chace is ambushed by two goons with guns while unarmed. She rushes one, makes it within hand-to-hand range before he can hit her, and takes him down. After which she discovers that one of his shots hit the other one.
  • In Sin City: Family Values, the Roaring Rampage of Revenge is to avenge a woman killed by stray bullets from a hitman taking potshots at a stray dog.
  • Welcome Back, Frank story arc of The Punisher has three vigilantes team up to remove crime from the streets. One is a priest who goes nuts after one too many confessions/braggin sessions, another is a Rich Bastard who shoots pot dealers near his upper-class neighborhood, and the third breaks into a Corrupt Corporate Executive meeting, ranting about their plans to close jobs to preserve their salaries, then opens fire. When Frank runs into them, he calls out the first two because of their twisted visions of justice, and the third because he unknowingly shot an innocent cleaning lady during his rampage.

Fan Works
  • As the opening move in the attack on Utopia Planitia Fleet Yards in Red Fire, Red Planet, the IKS mupwI' drops a ten ton block of uranium out of a cargo bay while moving at 25,000 kilometers per second.note  It hits its target dead center, but at least part of the weapon keeps going and hits the planet Mars behind the target.

Film
  • In The Mexican, the man from whom Jerry picks up the eponymous gun is killed by a falling bullet from people Firing in the Air a Lot elsewhere in the town.
  • In Snatch, when Avi is trying to shoot the dog with the diamond in him, he ends up accidentally killing Bullet-Tooth Tony.
  • In Mulholland Dr., a hitman's efforts to make a hit look like suicide are complicated when the gun misfires and hits a woman in the next room over.
  • An Uzi-wielding goon in The Corruptor fails to hit Detectives Wallace and Chen during the big Car Chase, but he does mow down several innocent bystanders in the process.
  • Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. British spy Jim Prideaux realises he's been Lured Into a Trap starts walking way from his contact. A Hungarian counter-intelligence agent panics, rushes into the street and fires a warning shot...right into the head of a woman breast-feeding a baby.

Literature
  • In Doc Sidhe, at the summoning circle in Central Park, Harris Greene intentionally shoots at the ground rather than at the oncoming goons because any misses would be raining down on the museum.
  • In the Honor Harrington books, particularly given how much energy is dedicated to anti-missile ECM, the various Space Navies are quite conscious of the danger of misses striking the wrong target. The tactics in a number of battles are shaped by the need to be sure that a missile fired at a defending fleet doesn't accidentally hit a planet. To avert the "racing on for millennia" part of this trope, it is mentioned that missiles usually auto-destruct after a programmed time if they miss their target so they don't ruin somebody's day down the road.
  • In Ghost Story, a handful of kids open fire on Karin Murphy's home while there's a meeting of the Better Future Society, a group of supernaturally inclined people (and not-quite-people) who've banded together to fight supernatural threats in Harry Dresden's absence. When Harry (who follows the kids and learns they're being abused and manipulated) tries to soften Murphy's wrath by pointing out the kids were spraying and praying and were unlikely to hit anyone, Murphy points out that not only did Abby, one of the BFS members, get hit in the gut and may not survive, but a stray bullet hit her neighbor and he bled out before anyone could find him.
  • In Death Is Forever, The Girl of the Week dies when a henchman, blinded by the flashbang trap that James Bond built into a lightbulb, fires two shots at a random direction with his pistol.

Live-Action TV
  • There was an episode of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation where a man was shooting at a makeshift handgun target and talked his girlfriend into having a go. She fired over the target and accidentally killed a woman on the beach several blocks away. Sadly, it was probably inspired by one of a number of cases in Real Life where people carelessly firing off guns in celebration have killed innocent bystanders.
    Nick Stokes: Well, that's why it's illegal to shoot guns within city limits, Genius!
  • This is how Willow's girlfriend Tara dies in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. She's hit by a stray bullet meant for Buffy.
  • In one episode of The Closer, a man fires a warning shot at a couple of gang members who are trying to steal his car at a gas station. The bullet flies two blocks and kills a kid. The gang members are charged with Felony Murder, since they instigated the crime that led to the kid's death, and the actual shooter, while not charged with anything, is appropriately horrified when he finds out what happened.
  • At one point in The Wire, two drug gangs get into a (laughably bad) shootout. There don't appear to be any casualties... until an Innocent Bystander mom tries to get her kids ready for school after the shooting dies down and finds her 9 year old son shot.
    • Later there's another inversion that plays an important role in the race for mayor. Carcetti tries to beat the sitting mayor by promising to lower crime and focusing on the issue of how no witnesses will come forward to testify against criminals because Baltimore's witness protection fails them. This seems to be confirmed when a witness in an important case is killed during the election. After the election is over and Carcetti has won, it turns out that the witness was killed by a stray bullet. A guy several blocks away who was shooting at bottles, and the witness had tremendously bad luck.
  • Averted in an episode of No Ordinary Family. Jim deflects a bullet a criminal fires at him, and it winds up hitting a child in the next room. While he initially goes into a Heroic BSOD, it's later revealed that being hospitalized for the bullet allowed the doctor's to catch and treat a much more serious disease. This manages to snap him out of it, and he is more careful in the future.
  • Averted in Eureka. A blast of radiation from the artifact kills Kim, and residual ration infects and slowly kills a few more people. Carter even compares it to a stray bullet, saying a woman was killed by a stray bullet on a raid he once went on.
  • Discussed and averted in Golden Boy. In the opening scene of the pilot the protagonist cop and his partner get into a gun fight with some robbers. Despite the tense situation, the cops are very careful with their shots and only one bullet misses its target. When he is later accused of being reckless during the shootout, the protagonist freely admits that having the gun fight out on the street was a bad idea but the robbers gave them little choice when they opened fire first. He then reveals that after got out of the hospital, he personally went back to the crime scene and spent hours tracking down that single stray bullet. He was greatly relieved when he discovered that it was lodged in a wall and did not hit any bystanders.
  • A tragic aversion in an epsiode of NYPD Blue: A bodega owner who has been robbed several times buys a handgun to protect himself. The next time he is robbed, he fires at - and misses - the fleeing robbers. Since he didn't have a permit for the gun, and shooting at the fleeing perps wasn't justifiable self-defence, the investigating detectives advice him to say that he had picked up the robber's discarded gun. Next day, a man is found dead in an apartment facing the bodega, hit by the bodega owner's stray bullet. The owner now faces felony charges and the detectives have to take back their advice to avoid perjuring both him and themselves.

Tabletop Games
  • As with all tropes concerning violence in Tabletop Games, Greg Costikyan's Violence RPG has its vicious way with this little trope in the section of Combat marked "Innocent Bystanders," and points out the consequences of a gun battle (if it can really be called such) between a violent scumbag with an Uzi (your typical Violence PC) and a little old lady with a revolver in her apartment.
    • The old lady got two shots off before getting cut down, and neither one of them hit Uzi guy, but they did go through the wall (made of cheap modern wallboard which can't stop bullets worth crap), and now some poor immigrant in another apartment packed full of them is now without much of her lower arm.
    • Meanwhile, Uzi guy got off twenty shots of which maybe three hit the old lady. The prewar brick wall behind her absorbed the impact of most of the bullets, but the rest went through a window, shattering it and resulting in casualty number two, a bike messenger who was riding below the window when it shattered and is now bleeding on the sidewalk and screaming bloody murder. Meanwhile, whatever bullets didn't go halfway through the bricks of a building across the street went through another window along the way, grazing the head of the kitty sleeping on the windowsill and possibly hitting the personal trainer who lives there, who is now prone on the floor and calling 911 on his cellphone. Needless to say, there's a reason that the law frowns upon firing weapons in city limits.
  • Averted (though with a melee weapon) in Warhammer 40K with Kharn the Betrayer. Such is his devotion to Khorne (of "Khorne cares not from where the blood flows, as long as it flows" fame) that if he misses in close combat against an enemy he automatically hits the ally next to him.
  • Dungeons & Dragons 3rd edition has a variant rule suggested in one of the books, offering tables and rules to determine the outcome of range attacks which miss. The sidebar advises the Dungeon Master to ignore this suggestion, since it involves a tremendous amount of calculation and rolling to be done for every ranged attack, which would bog the game down, and be no fun for players uninterested in a simulation-style game. The entire exercise is offered as an example of the dangers inherent to house rules: It might be what you and your group really want, or it might make the game less fun for everyone involved.

Video Games
  • The Gunnery Chief in Mass Effect 2 delivers an epic rant against careless firing of the mass accelerator for this very reason. Sadly, the people in charge of making space combat cutscenes did not listen to the Gunnery Chief, leading to some rather ugly inferences for Earth after the massive space battle in Mass Effect 3.
  • X-COM:
    • In the original games, there's an invisible backstop at the edge of the map, but otherwise any shot fired will be traced across the map until it hits something — be that a wall, an alien, a civilian, or an X-COM operative — regardless of what it was aimed at.
    • In the remake, Enemy Unknown, stray shots from laser or plasma weapons have a penchant for wearing down most covernote . On the other hand, it's jarring (and hilarious) that a miss deals zero damage to anything living the actual shots hit, be it a friendly, an enemy who wasn't being aimed at, or even the target itselfnote .
  • Partially averted in the 2D Fallout titles. Accidentally hitting a friendly character is a common Critical Miss, and any weapon fired in bursts has a chance to hit characters close to the line of fire. In Fallout Tactics, this can create the odd sight of the player character emerging unscathed from machine gun fire while squadmates to left and right are reduced to Ludicrous Gibs.
  • Missed shots in World of Tanks usually just hit the ground or other obstacles near the target, but stray rounds occasionally strike an unlucky vehicle behind the intended target.

Web Animation
  • Subverted in Bad Days. After Wonder Woman deflects bullets with her bracelets, the bullets ricochet into the wall she's next to and nearly hit several policemen, as well as breaking one's coffee cup.

Real Life
  • Because this trope is averted by Real Life bullets, a standard rule of gun safety is to be certain both that there is nothing behind or beside your target that you are unwilling to shoot and that there is something behind your target that can absorb your bullets safely (the aforementioned backstop).
  • Unfortunately, some police officers in real life don't seem to understand how problematic stray gunfire is, when they open fire on suspects in a phenomenon called "contagious fire," which is basically every cop on a scene becoming Trigger Happy. At least one incident involving the Miami-Dade Police Department involved 377 rounds shot at unarmed suspects - with plenty of collateral damage to property and injuries to other innocent bystanders and even other officers themselves.
  • In military operations, reports on casualties from missed shots are not commonly tallied (most people who die in bombing raids are considered to be casualties of bombs), but there are a few exceptions: at Pearl Harbor, between 48 and 68 civilians were killed by unexploded AA ammunition that landed outside of the military bases.

Spent Shells ShowerBullet IndexTaking the Bullet
Sniper PistolGuns Do Not Work That WayUniversal Ammunition
Step into the Blinding FightFight SceneStrolling Through the Chaos
Stop or I Will Shoot!Guns and Gunplay TropesStun Guns
Stock Visual MetaphorsRule of PerceptionStreaming Stars
Steel Ear DrumsTelevision Is Trying to Kill UsSuck Out the Poison

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