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. Shootings are an all-too-frequent occurrence in the USA. With the number unintentional shootings averaging about 2,000+ per year and continually on the rise, many folks might be wondering: what’s the criminal charge and penalty for accidentally shooting someone? Whether a person was cleaning their gun, dropped their gun, or claiming the gun malfunctioned or just went off, if someone gets hit with the bullet, criminal charges are likely to follow. Not everyone gets so lucky as to have the shooting victim apologize to them. In fact, it is much more likely that an accidental shooting will result in serious criminal charges.
What is the Accidental Discharge of a Firearm?
The law defines the accidental discharge of a firearm as the event of firing at a time not intended by the firearm user. In such an event, people may be injured, or property may be damaged. Accidental discharge may be a criminal offense. Whether this gun law offense is a misdemeanor or a more serious crime — that is, a felony — depends upon state law and the degree of injury or damage caused by the discharge. Unlawful discharge of firearms laws typically punishes 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.
How Does an Accidental Discharge Occur?
An accidental discharge is the act of negligently firing a gun that can cause injury or death to others, or damage to property. Negligence is the failure to use reasonable care under the circumstances. Accidental discharges can occur anywhere, including at residences and public places. These events commonly occur at events where firearms are likely to be present, such as hunting trips and shooting ranges. Accidental discharges can occur in a number of ways. These include:
• When an individual deliberately pulls the trigger of the firearm for a purpose other than to have the firearm discharge. Examples of such other purposes include safety or function testing, or gun safety demonstration. During these events, however, ammunition is, unbeknownst to the user, left in the chamber of the gun, and is accidentally released by the trigger pull;
• When an individual, in attempting to grip or holster the firearm trigger without intending to pull the trigger, accidentally squeezes the trigger with sufficient force to cause an accidental discharge;
• When an individual, without intending to, drops a firearm, thereby causing the trigger to be pulled and an accidental discharge to occur. Such discharges are often committed by inexperienced users; and
• When the firearm suffers from a mechanical malfunction. In some instances, mechanical malfunctions can occur because the gun is defective. In other situations, mechanical malfunction can occur as a result of failure to maintain the firearm or ammunition in proper working order or condition.
Manslaughter (Criminally Negligent Homicide)
Manslaughter (Criminally Negligent Homicide) means recklessly causing the death of another person or committing murder with a mitigating factor such as acting under extreme emotional distress or under a delusion due to a mental illness. When a person unintentionally kills another, whether or not a gun was used, they can be charged with manslaughter, which is a felony. Manslaughter is frequently referred to as criminally negligent homicide, as that name more closely mirrors the elements of a manslaughter charge. To be found guilty of manslaughter, a person has to die as a result of a defendant’s inherently dangerous actions or actions taken with reckless disregard. Manslaughter is a second-degree felony punishable by up to 15 years in prison and up to $10,000 in fines. Typical penalties for a manslaughter conviction include at least one year in jail, and can be much worse if the conduct that led to the death merit such. For example, a repeat drunk driver that causes a death is likely to face a harsher sentence than a recently victimized elderly man who, instinctively, accidentally shoots someone they believe to be a robber. Unlike other states which divide the crime of manslaughter into voluntary and involuntary manslaughter, the Beehive State divides its manslaughter laws based upon things such as recklessness of the act, the use of negligence, and whether the death occurred while operating a motor vehicle (i.e. vehicular manslaughter) or committing assault or child abuse. The primary difference between murder and manslaughter is intent. Murder is generally understood to be an intentional killing whereas manslaughter is an unintentional killing. However, there are exceptions to this rule. For example, if a person commits murder under extreme emotion distress or while acting under a delusion due to mental illness, the crime of murder may be reduced to manslaughter. These defenses are called mitigating circumstances.
If a non-fatal, accidental shooting occurs, criminal charges can still be brought. Generally, causing harm to another, even if unintentional, can still be illegal. Unfortunately, however, there are some states, like Florida, where even lethal accidental shootings can go unpunished, if the conduct does not rise to the level of recklessness (which for the Sunshine state is much higher than you’d expect). Alternatively, in Virginia, just the reckless handling of a firearm leading to injury can be charged as felony punishable by up to 5 years. In addition to the numerous specific state and local laws that regulate improper and accidental discharges of guns, criminal negligence charges are likely appropriate in an accidental shooting case. Unless the defendant is a repeat offender, or there are additional criminal charges, which could include other firearms charges, or assault, generally, criminal negligence, and other charges for accidentally shooting, but not killing, will be misdemeanor charges, punishable by not more than one year in jail.
Causes of Firearm Accidents
Unintentional shootings rank among the leading causes of gun deaths. Why do they happen?
Lack of Training
Firearms safety courses are vital in teaching gun owners how to safely use their gun. Gun owners who did not undergo proper training are more likely to injure or kill someone in an accidental shooting than those who did.
Drugs and Alcohol
Accidents happen more often when people show off or play with guns, especially while under the influence of drugs and alcohol.
Not all guns are designed and manufactured correctly. If a weapon discharges on account of poor design or a manufacturing defect, the manufacturer can be held legally responsible for the damage that occurs. Unintentional shootings rank among the leading causes of gun deaths.
Lack of Parental Guidance
When a child gets hold of a gun, the parent may be found legally responsible for failing to keep it in a secure place.
Who Is Responsible in Negligent Shootings?
If a person’s carelessness contributed to the incident, the courts will consider several factors to determine liability. In most cases, either the gun’s owner or the person who discharged the firearm faces full responsibility for an incident. In some cases, a parent or a child may face some degree of responsibility.
Examples of negligent shootings include:
• A child discovers an unsecured, loaded firearm around the house and accidentally shoots himself or herself or others.
• A hunter fails to keep the safety on a firearm and accidentally shoots a fellow hunter.
• A gun owner fires into the air in celebration, and the returning bullet strikes a bystander.
• A teenager purposefully accesses a parent’s locked firearm and accidentally discharges it, hitting himself or herself or others.
What are the Legal Penalties for Accidental Discharge Offenses?
Conviction for an accidental discharge may result in misdemeanor charges (i.e., up to a year in prison, and/or files) or felony charges (i.e., a year or more in prison, and more significant fines). The severity of the penalty depends upon the degree of negligence. The penalty also may be enhanced in certain circumstances. Many states provide for harsher penalties if the discharge occurs in a public place or a residence.
What Are the Criminal Penalties for Accidentally Shooting Someone?
Generally speaking, merely negligent accidental discharge offenses carry lighter penalties than do reckless discharge offenses. A reckless discharge is a careless discharge made by an individual who is indifferent to the risk of injury or damage posed by the discharge. Examples of reckless (as opposed to merely accidental) discharges include:
• A discharge made where multiple people are publicly gathered. Such as, for example, by carelessly pointing the firearm into the air and carelessly discharging it at a large gathering. Generally, the greater the degree of carelessness and the greater number of people present, the more “reckless” the discharge is; and
• Careless discharge of a firearm, such as a handgun, pistol, or revolver, with bullets that can kill someone. Such discharge is generally considered to be reckless. Careless discharge of a BB gun or an air gun is also considered to be reckless, although less so.
An extremely reckless discharge carries more severe penalties, in terms of jail time and fines, than do “regular” reckless discharges or accidental discharge. Extreme recklessness is generally defined as recklessness that is so gross and brazen as to show a flagrant disregard for human life, that can seriously injure one or more people. An example is the careless discharge of a firearm in extremely close proximity to a large group of individuals. 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.
Criminal penalties for accidentally shooting someone include:
• 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 than, 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 possessing a gun. This means that 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.
What Defenses Exist to Accidental Discharge Offenses?
Defenses to accidental discharge crimes include:
• The discharge was the result of a manufacturing defect. A manufacturing defect is the result of a flaw in the manufacturing process of a particular item; the defect is not in accordance with the manufacturer’s design. To prevail on this defense, a defendant must prove that the manufacturing defect caused the accidental discharge; and The discharge was the result of a design defect. A design defect is a flaw in the very design of the product itself. To prevail on this defense, a defendant must show that the design defect caused the discharge.
Preventing Firearm Accidents
There are many measures you can take to reduce the likelihood of a firearm accident, including:
• Store your gun in a safe so that no one in your home has access to the gun beside you.
• Install trigger locks, cable locks, and chamber locks to prevent unwanted discharge.
• Store your ammunition and firearm in different locations.
• Keep your gun unassembled, as it takes knowledge to assemble a firearm.
Utah Gun Accident Lawyer
If you or someone you know was injured in a gun shooting, please call Ascent Law LLC for your free consultation (801) 676-5506. We want to help you.
8833 S. Redwood Road, Suite C
West Jordan, Utah
84088 United States
Telephone: (801) 676-5506