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. 

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.

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.  

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.

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.   

Do I Need a Lawyer for an Accidental Discharge of a Firearm Charge?

If you are facing charges for having accidentally discharged a firearm, you may wish to consult with a criminal defense lawyer. The lawyer should have experience with firearm laws. 

An experienced criminal defense lawyer near you can assess the facts and circumstances of your case. The lawyer can also advise you of your rights, provide case guidance, and can represent you at trial.