While the right to keep and bear arms is constitutionally protected, states have long restricted how and when people can use firearms. All states, as well as cities and municipal governments, have laws or ordinances which prevent people from firing or discharging a weapon under certain circumstances. These laws, often known as unlawful discharge, negligent discharge, or unlawful use of a weapon, differ widely between states and cities.
Unlawful discharge laws typically punish the unlawful firing of a firearm, such as a pistol or shotgun, but they may also apply to other weapons such as crossbows, blowguns, and BB or pellet guns. Unlawful discharge laws prohibit firing any weapon in certain areas or under specific circumstances, such as firing from a moving vehicle, firing across a state highway, or firing into or at an occupied building.
Some states have laws which prohibit the illegal use of a weapon. Such laws prohibit illegal discharge of a weapon, but they may also prohibit such conduct as brandishing a firearm in an angry or threatening manner, firing a weapon within 100 yards of a school, and handling or firing a weapon while drunk.
Intentional, Negligent, or Careless Discharge
You cannot commit an unlawful discharge of a weapon if you fire it accidentally. A prosecutor must show you intentionally fired the weapon, but does not have to show you did so maliciously or with the intention to hurt someone or damage property. Prosecutors typically show your intent from the circumstances surrounding the situation, witnesses testimony, or even your own statements.
Location, Time, and Manner
Many cities and municipalities have adopted unlawful discharge ordinances which prohibit the firing of a weapon inside a specified geographic area, such as within a city's boundaries. In such areas it is illegal to fire a weapon even if you are on private property within the city limits, though such ordinances do allow for specific exceptions.
Unlawful discharge laws allow people to legally discharge a weapon in certain situations. Common exceptions include firing the weapon in a gun range or shooting gallery, firing blank ammunition during an athletic contest, firing a weapon in self defense, or firing while hunting.
Many states also have laws that prohibit the reckless discharge of a weapon. Reckless discharge laws primarily target celebratory shooting or firing, such as shooting a pistol into the air to celebrate the new year or the 4th of July. This crime occurs when a person fires a weapon in a way which might result in someone else getting killed or hurt.
Unlawful discharge of a weapon crimes can be either misdemeanor or felony offenses depending on the state and the circumstances of the case. Misdemeanor offenses are less serious than felony offenses, though both can result in significant criminal penalties.
- Jail. Jail sentences for the unlawful discharge of a weapon differ widely depending on the state or city. For some city ordinance violations there may be no associated jail time penalty at all, while misdemeanor charges can result in a few days or up to a year in jail. Felony offenses, especially where a person fired into an occupied home or fired in a way that risked human safety, can result in prison sentences of five years of more.
- Fines. Fines for illegal discharge convictions also vary significantly. City ordinance fines can be as small as five dollars, while misdemeanor fines typically range between about $50-$1,000. Felony fines are often much more significant, sometimes as high as $10,000 or more.
- Probation. You can also be sentenced to probation for the illegal firing of a weapon. Probation sentences typically last at least 12 months, but can exceed three years in some situations. When you're on probation you have to meet specific conditions, such as paying all court costs and fines, taking a drug and alcohol rehabilitation program if substance abuse was involved, regularly reporting to a probation officer, and not committing more crimes. Failing to comply with any probation condition can result in a court revoking probation and imposing a jail sentence, imposing additional fines, extending the length of probation, or other penalties.
- Firearms restriction. Federal firearms law prohibits any convicted felon from owning a gun. This means that if you're convicted of a felony criminal discharge crime, you will have to get rid of any guns you already own.
Speak to an Attorney
Any criminal charge involving a weapon is a serious situation. If you've been charged with the unlawful discharge of a weapon you face significant penalties that can negatively impact your life, your family, and your job. You need to speak to a local criminal lawyer as soon as you're arrested, charged with a crime, or questioned by the police for any weapons charge. A local criminal lawyer who has experience with local prosecutors, police, and judges will be able to give you advice and protect your rights at all stages of the criminal justice process.