An accidental discharge of a firearm, also known as an unintentional discharge of a firearm, is defined as discharging the firearm at a time not intended by the firearm user. In cases of accidental discharge, individuals may be injured and/or property may be damaged. 

The accidental discharge of a firearm, in some cases, may be a criminal offense. Whether or not the gun law offense is a misdemeanor or a felony will depend upon local state laws and the degree of injury and/or damage caused by the accidental discharge.

How Does an Accidental Discharge Occur?

An accidental discharge occurs when an individual handling a firearm is negligent and fires the weapon unintentionally. Negligence is a legal term meaning a failure to use reasonable care under the circumstances. This may include pointing a weapon the individual knows is loaded at individuals or property.

An accidental discharge can occur in any place, including homes and public places. These types of discharges often occur in places where firearms are more likely to be present, such as shooting ranges and/or hunting trips.

An accidental discharge can occur in many ways, including:

  • An individual deliberately pulling the trigger of a firearm for a purpose other than to have the firearm discharge; 
  • An individual attempts to grip or holster the firearm trigger and accidentally squeezes the trigger with sufficient force to cause a discharge;
  • An individual, usually an inexperienced firearm user, accidentally drops a firearm causing a discharge to occur; and/or
  • The firearm suffers from a mechanical malfunction. 

Examples of individuals pulling the trigger for purposes other than firing the weapon include:

  • For safety or function testing;
  • For gun safety demonstration; and/or
  • Practicing when they believe the weapon to be unloaded.

In these instances, unbeknownst to the firearm user, ammunition is in the chamber and discharges when the individual pulls the trigger. For this reason, it is extremely important to check and double check to ensure a weapon is unloaded prior to using it in the above listed manners.

In some cases, a mechanical malfunction may occur if the firearm is defective. Mechanical malfunctions may also occur as a result of the user’s failure to maintain the firearm and/or ammunition in proper working condition.

What are the Legal Penalties for Accidental Discharge Offenses?

Accidental discharge of a firearm penalty may include a misdemeanor or a felony conviction, depending on the circumstances, including the degree of negligence exercised by the firearm user. A misdemeanor conviction may result in up to a year in jail and/or fines. A felony conviction may result in a year or more in prison and/or larger fines. 

The penalty for an accidental discharge may be enhanced under certain circumstances. Many states allow harsher sentences if the accidental discharge occurs in a residence or public place.

In most cases, negligent accidental discharge offenses carry lighter penalties than reckless discharge offenses. Reckless discharge of a firearm occurs when an individual acts in such a manner they knew or should have known would cause harm and are indifferent to the risk of injury and/or damage that may be caused by the discharge.

Examples of reckless discharges of a firearm include discharges made where multiple individuals are publicly gathered and the careless discharge of a firearm with ammunition that can kill another individual. 

A reckless discharge at a public gathering may occur when an individual carelessly points the firearm at other individuals and/or carelessly discharges it at a gathering. In most cases, the greater the degree of carelessness and the larger the number of individuals present, the more reckless the discharge is considered.

An individual carelessly discharging a handgun, pistol, and/or revolver with lethal ammunition is generally considered reckless. A careless discharge of a BB gun or air gun may also be considered reckless, although less severe than a firearm.

An extremely reckless discharge of a firearm carries harsher penalties than reckless discharges or accidental discharges. In general, extreme recklessness is recklessness so gross and brazen as to show a flagrant disregard for human life that may cause serious injury to one or more individuals. An example of extreme recklessness would be discharging a firearm in extremely close proximity to a large group of individuals.

Punishment for a felony accidental discharge conviction may include:

  • A long prison sentence;
  • A lengthy period of probation or parole; and/or
  • Heavy fines, including restitution.

There are life-long consequences that may occur after a felony conviction, including:

  • A loss of employment;
  • The loss of voting rights;
  • Losing firearms rights, either to purchase or own;
  • Inability to obtain a professional license;
  • Inability to attend school; and/of
  • Inability to rent housing.

Do Laws Regarding Accidental Discharges of a Firearm Vary by State?

Yes, laws regarding accidental discharge of a firearm vary by state. It is important to consult with a local attorney in these cases. 

For example, in California, an individual is only guilty of a crime if they willfully discharge a firearm in a grossly negligent manner which could result in injury or death to a person. Accidentally shooting a firearm in California is not a crime. The individual must intentionally pull the trigger, even if they do not intend the consequences that occur.

In some states, such as Virginia, the mere reckless handling of a firearm can lead to a misdemeanor conviction. In Virginia, it is illegal to handle recklessly any firearm in such a way that endangers the life, limb, or property of another person. An individual who handles a firearm in a manner that is so gross, wanton, and culpable as to show a reckless disregard for human life and causes serious bodily injury to another which results in permanent and significant physical impairment, has committed a felony.

What Defenses Exist to Accidental Discharge Offenses?

Some defenses do exist to a charge of accidental discharge of a firearm. One may be a manufacturing defect in the firearm. A manufacturing defect is caused by a flaw in the manufacturing process of the firearm. The defect is not part of the manufacturer’s design. For a successful defense, the defendant must prove the manufacturing defect was the cause of the accidental discharge.

Another possible defense to a charge of accidental discharge of a firearm is that the discharge was the result of a design defect. A design defect in a firearm is a flaw in the design of the firearm itself. In order to be successful using this defense, the defendant must prove the design defect was the cause of the discharge.

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

Yes, it is important to consult with an experienced criminal attorney if you are facing an accidental discharge of a firearm charge. An attorney will be able to review the facts of your case, determine if any defenses are available to you and represent you during any court proceedings, if necessary. 

Should you be charged with a felony, in some cases, an attorney may be able to negotiate lesser charges for your case. As noted above, a felony conviction carries serious and life-long consequences.

It is important to note that it may be helpful to consult with an attorney with firearms experience. The operation and maintenance of a firearm may be complex and is not a topic about which all individuals are knowledgeable. Firearms knowledge could be the difference between a successful case and an unsuccessful case.