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What Are the Criminal Penalties for Accidentally Shooting Someone?

By George Khoury, Esq. | Last updated on

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.

Manslaughter, A.K.A. Criminally Negligent Homicide

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.

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.

Non-Lethal Shootings

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.

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