Suzanne Perez Tobias

In this era of mass shootings, is it time to rethink parade gunfire?

Parades are boisterous affairs.

Groups marching through Wichita’s Delano neighborhood for the St. Patrick’s Day parade earlier this month included bands, bagpipes, drums, and hordes of motorcycles revving their engines.

Even so, some marchers caught the crowd’s attention more than the rest, and well before they actually appeared: the gun-toting, pistol-shooting Wichita Wagonmasters.

The volunteer organization has been marching in parades for more than 40 years. Its mission is “promoting the good life” in Wichita, which Wagonmasters do by helping with the Wichita River Festival, the Downtown Chili Cookoff and other activities.

They do great work, and it’s appreciated.

What’s not so appreciated — at least by several parade-goers I’ve spoken with in recent years — are the explosions of gunfire that accompany their parade appearances.

About 30 Wagonmasters marched in this year’s St. Patrick’s Day parade, including about a dozen who fired blanks from pistols and shotguns. The newly minted Admiral Windwagon Smith, who traditionally makes his first public appearance at the parade, rode atop his prairie schooner, which fired even louder explosions from its cannon.

To be sure, some find the gunplay entertaining. But others react with anxiety or even panic, wondering whether a crazed gunman has opened fire on a public street.

A friend told me this year that children in her group started clutching their ears and crying as the Wagonmasters passed by. Noise from things like guns and fireworks is especially painful to young ears.

Others told me they heard gunshots well before the cowboy contingent came into view and briefly wondered if the gunfire was real. That got them thinking that maybe gunplay — even blanks fired by men dressed as cowboys — isn’t so charmingly nostalgic anymore.

It’s a tragic sign of our times, but one that demands consideration: After real gunmen have opened fire and caused mass casualties at schools, airports, movie theaters and open-air concerts across the country, is it appropriate any longer to fire guns in places where crowds gather?

Bill Ramsey, captain of the Wichita Wagonmasters, said his group’s guns are a beloved tradition and that far more people enjoy it than complain. In the 1961 Disney film, “The Saga of Windwagon Smith,” cowboys fire their guns in celebration as the Windwagon sails through town.

“It’s entertainment,” Ramsey said. “People expect it. They know that’s what happens if we’re in the parade — we’re gonna come through, we’re gonna make some noise. We’re here to announce the new Admiral, and we’re doing the parade thing.”

A Wichita city ordinance on parades says it’s illegal for participants to discharge any firearm that produces “any noise greater than that produced by a .22 caliber blank ammunition.” Ramsey said the Wagonmasters’ shotguns are probably louder than that.

“But we have had talks with the city in the past about these things, and we’ve always been cleared for them,” he said.

Capt. Brent Allred, who oversees investigations for the Wichita Police Department, said gunfire sounds, like fireworks, sometimes prompt residents to call 911 with concerns. Loud bangs and unexpected popping noises can be especially upsetting to people with post-traumatic stress disorder, including veterans.

“I don’t know if that’s the vast majority,” Allred said. “But anytime you have a concern from anyone, you kind of take a step back and you want to look at, ‘Hey, is this the best practice? Should we be doing something different?’”

Last year, police in Coral Springs, Florida, asked residents not to explode any personal fireworks for the Fourth of July out of respect for the survivors of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

Thankfully, the Wichita community hasn’t suffered such a mass casualty event. But that shouldn’t keep us from considering the effect of play gunfire on veterans, children, trauma survivors and others.

“Society is changing,” Allred said. “It just goes back to, how many people is this affecting, and is it something that we need to change? . . . A community conversation about that might be helpful.”

I agree. So let’s hold the gunfire and talk.

Suzanne Perez Tobias is a columnist and member of The Eagle’s editorial board. During her nearly 30 years at the newspaper, she has covered breaking news, education, local government and other topics. An avid reader, Suzanne also oversees The Eagle’s books coverage and coordinates the annual #ReadICT Challenge. She can be reached at 316-268-6567.