Accidental Discharge of a Firearm Criminal Charges

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By Christopher Coble, Esq. on December 06, 2016 10:57 AM

Accidents happen to the best of us. But some accidents are more dangerous than others, and some accidents can carry criminal charges and penalties. So it is with accidental shootings.

Accidental or negligent discharge of a firearm can be a criminal offense, depending on state laws. Criminal charges are most likely to apply when a person is acting recklessly while handling a gun. Here's a look at a few state statutes on accidental shootings and the criminal penalties involved.

The Sunshine State

Florida's law against discharging firearms in public or on residential property stipulates: "any person who ... recklessly or negligently discharges a firearm outdoors on any property used primarily as the site of a dwelling ... or zoned exclusively for residential use commits a misdemeanor of the first degree." The penalties for first degree misdemeanors in Florida include up to 12 months in jail and/or up $1,000.00 in fines.

But it can be difficult for accidental shootings to be considered recklessness or negligence under the statute. In a tragic 2015 case, a man accidentally pulled the trigger of a gun while twirling it on his finger, fatally shooting a pregnant woman in the head. Prosecutors did not press charges because the unintentional shooting did not rise to the standard of "culpable negligence" or a "showing reckless disregard for human life." As Chief Assistant State Attorney Ric Ridgway told 48 Hours' Crimesider at the time, "If you're just being careless with a gun and it goes off, that's not a crime."

The Golden State

Even under California law, a person is only guilty of a crime if he or she "willfully discharges a firearm in a grossly negligent manner which could result in injury or death to a person." If convicted, a person could be guilty of either a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in prison, or a felony facing two or three years in prison.

And accidentally shooting a gun doesn't qualify as a crime -- a person must intentionally pull the trigger, even if he or she did not intend the consequences.

The Old Dominion State

Virginia's criminal statutes generally deal with intentional firing of guns, but one section criminalizes the reckless handling of firearms: "It shall be unlawful for any person to handle recklessly any firearm so as to endanger the life, limb or property of any person." While merely recklessly handling a gun can lead to a misdemeanor conviction, handling a firearm "in a manner so gross, wanton, and culpable as to show a reckless disregard for human life and causes the serious bodily injury of another person resulting in permanent and significant physical impairment" classifies as a Class 6 felony, which could get you five years in prison.

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