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Discharging a Firearm in Public Lawyers

Discharging a Firearm in Public: What You Need to Know

Discharging a firearm in public spaces is generally prohibited by law across most states. While specifics vary by jurisdiction, there are some common themes around when and where firearms can legally be discharged. Understanding these laws is crucial for responsible gun owners to avoid facing criminal charges.

Why Are There Laws About Publicly Discharging Firearms?

Laws restricting the discharge of firearms in public areas are primarily concerned with public safety. Indiscriminate shooting in populated spaces risks injuring or killing innocent bystanders. Stray bullets can travel significant distances and penetrate buildings and vehicles, making collateral damage a real danger.

Restricting public discharges helps ensure citizens can go about their business without fear of being struck by errant gunfire. It also aids law enforcement in responding to active shooting incidents—random gunshots make it harder to identify the actual threat.

What Activities Are Typically Prohibited?

Common prohibited activities covered under public firearm discharge laws include:

  • Recklessly or negligently firing a gun in a public space, like a park, sidewalk, or parking lot.
  • Shooting across or along public roadways and highways.
  • Discharging a firearm within a certain distance of schools, churches, stores, etc.
  • Firing guns in the air randomly or to celebrate events (known as celebratory gunfire).
  • Hunting animals with firearms in unauthorized public areas.

Simply put, any gunfire in crowded civilian spaces usually violates these laws, even if no one is physically harmed.

Are There Exceptions to Public Discharge Laws?

While public firearm discharge laws aim to protect public safety, there are certain reasonable exceptions. These include:

Self-Defense Situations

Using a legally owned gun for legitimate self-defense, when backed up by evidence, is generally exempt. However, the force used must match the threat faced. Indiscriminately firing when not directly threatened could still lead to charges.

Law Enforcement and Military Personnel

On-duty law enforcement and military personnel may discharge firearms where necessary to perform their duties. This includes responding to active shooter incidents, managing dangerous suspects, and training exercises.

Designated Shooting Ranges/Areas

Specially zoned shooting ranges, gun clubs, and hunting land allow legal discharge when following range policies and procedures. These designated areas are chosen to minimize risks to bystanders.

Private, Rural Property

In rural areas with very low population density, property owners may be exempt from some public discharge laws. Safety precautions like backstops are still legally required in most cases.

What Are the Penalties for Illegal Discharge?

The specific criminal charges and penalties vary significantly across states and situations. In general though, illegally discharging a firearm in public is prosecuted as a felony or misdemeanor based on:

  • If any person or property was endangered/damaged
  • The type of public space (schools/government property increase severity)
  • If the violation was reckless or negligent rather than accidental
  • The number of repeated violations on record

Penalties can include hefty fines, multi-year prison sentences, probation periods, community service, and lifetime bans on owning firearms.Even situations where no one was directly injured or killed can face charges like reckless endangerment, disorderly conduct with a firearm, or unlawful discharge. Defending against such charges requires experienced criminal defense lawyers.

What Defenses Can Be Raised Against Discharge Charges?

While public firearm discharge laws are understandably strict, there are certain legal defenses that may justify otherwise prohibited behavior or lead to reduced charges/penalties:


As noted above, using necessary and reasonable force for legitimate self-defense purposes can exempt firearm discharge that might normally be illegal. Eyewitnesses and evidence backing up imminent threat claims are critical.

No Recklessness or Negligence

If the prohibited gunfire was the result of a truly accidental discharge with no recklessness or negligence involved, charges may be lessened or excused. Mechanical firearm failures leading to discharge would be an example.

Mistake of Law

A good faith ‘mistake of law’, where the defendant reasonably believed their conduct was legal due to misinformation or misunderstanding, can sometimes reduce charges. However, ignorance of the law is not a full defense.

Diminished Mental Capacity

In some cases, defendants with severely impaired mental capacities may use that as a partial legal defense. The impact of such conditions on understanding discharge laws and risks could justify lighter sentencing.

State-Specific Public Discharge Laws and Penalties

Beyond the general concepts covered above, actual public firearm discharge laws vary significantly across states. Here are examples from three states:


Florida bans knowingly discharging a firearm in public under Statute § 790.15(1). Offenses are prosecuted as first or second-degree misdemeanors based on severity, with penalties up to $1000 fines and 60 day jail sentences.


Texas law prohibits reckless discharge of firearms toward buildings, vehicles, or people, with violations charged as misdemeanors or felonies based on risk factors. Penalties range from fines to 10+ year prison sentences.


Virginia’s laws in §18.2 make it a Class 6 felony to recklessly fire at occupied buildings or within school zones. This can carry 1-5 years imprisonment. Harsher charges apply to firing at individuals directly.

These examples demonstrate the variation in public discharge statutes and sentencing guidelines between jurisdictions. Consulting local criminal defense lawyers is essential for a clear understanding of your state laws.

When To Contact a Defense Attorney

If you face arrest or charges for alleged unlawful discharge of a firearm in public, getting prompt legal representation is critical. Skilled criminal defense lawyers can review the exact circumstances and evidence and build customized defense strategies.

In cases of accidental violations or unclear laws, they may even get charges reduced or dropped entirely through negotiations before trial. An attorney can also represent your best interests in court if needed.

Don’t take chances without understanding your state and local public firearm discharge statutes. Responsible gun owners should exercise abundant caution to avoid situations that might violate these laws. But if you find yourself facing related charges, let an experienced lawyer stand up for your rights.

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