Unlawful Discharge of a Weapon

A conviction for unlawful discharge of a weapon can lead to more than just time behind bars.

By , J.D.
Updated by Rebecca Pirius, Attorney · Mitchell Hamline School of Law
Updated August 12, 2022

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, reckless discharge, or unlawful use of a weapon, differ widely between states and cities.

Unlawful Discharge of a Firearm

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. To face criminal charges, a person doesn't need to be shooting at any particular person or thing (although that would likely lead to much more serious charges). These laws focus on risk to public safety. Projectiles from any of these weapons have the serious potential for causing bodily harm or property damage. Even if you shoot a gun in the air, there's still the potential to harm someone or something: What goes up must come down.

Common Safety Zones

Unlawful discharge laws prohibit firing any weapon in certain areas or under specific circumstances, such as firing at or from a moving vehicle, firing across a public roadway or state highway, or firing into or at an occupied building. Other areas that laws generally consider off limits for firing a weapon include near school grounds, government buildings, parades, large public gatherings (like protests), and large venues.

Many cities and municipalities have adopted unlawful discharge ordinances that prohibit the firing of a weapon inside a specified geographic area, such as within a city's boundaries—even if it's your private property. These laws are very common in densely populated areas.

Reckless Firing of a Weapon

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 an event or holiday. This crime occurs when a person fires a weapon in a way that might result in someone else getting killed or hurt.

Other Illegal Use of Weapons

Some states have laws that prohibit the illegal use of a weapon. Such laws prohibit the illegal discharge of a weapon, but they may also prohibit such conduct as brandishing a firearm in an angry or threatening manner or handling or firing a weapon while intoxicated or under the influence of drugs.

Accidental Discharge of a Weapon

You cannot commit an unlawful discharge of a weapon if you fire it accidentally. Prosecutors must show you intentionally fired the weapon, even if they don't need to show you did so maliciously or with the intent to hurt someone or damage property. As discussed above, these laws aim to protect public safety. Prosecutors typically prove that you intentionally (versus accidentally) fired the weapon from the circumstances surrounding the situation, witness testimony, or even your own statements.

Where Is It Legal to Shoot a Firearm?

Unlawful discharge of weapon laws have exceptions that 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 on hunting grounds with a hunting permit.

What Are the Penalties for Unlawful Discharge of a Weapon?

Unlawful discharge of weapon crimes can be either misdemeanor or felony offenses depending on the state law, the circumstances of the case, and the risk of harm. Misdemeanor offenses are less serious than felony offenses, though both can result in significant criminal penalties.

Misdemeanor Penalties

Misdemeanor penalties usually apply where the risk of harm is low, such as firing into the air to celebrate (unless you happen to be at a big event). Other examples might include shooting across a vacant lot or toward an abandoned barn. A person convicted of a misdemeanor usually faces up to a year in jail, plus payment of fines and restitution.

Felony Penalties

Felony charges are likely where a person fires in a way that risks human safety. These situations often include firing at or from a vehicle, firing at or near an occupied home, school, or government building, or firing recklessly in a crowded area. A felony conviction can result in prison sentences of five years or more, along with fines and restitution orders.

Firearm Restrictions

On top of jail or prison time, a conviction can result in firearm restrictions. Federal firearms law prohibits any convicted felon from possessing a gun. If you're convicted of a felony criminal discharge crime, you will be required to get rid of any guns you already own, and you won't be allowed to buy new ones legally.

For a misdemeanor or a felony conviction, your state might impose additional restrictions or sanctions. States can enact stricter gun restrictions, and they may suspend hunting licenses or concealed carry permits.

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 defense 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.

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