Breaking it down
Shooting a gun in public generally is a felony crime in Virginia that upon conviction can mean spending years in prison and paying thousands of dollars in fines.
- It’s a crime to shoot at or inside of an occupied building, at or inside a school or on school grounds, and from or at a motor vehicle
- Shooting at a marked public safety vehicle carries special penalties
- The law makes exceptions for law enforcement officers firing weapons in the line of duty, for defending yourself or your property, for being part of an authorized program on school grounds, or lawful hunting near school grounds
Discharging Firearms in Virginia
Virginia has a number of laws that regulate where you’re allowed to fire a weapon, It is a crime to shoot a weapon where people might be in danger of injury or death. Places where firing a gun generally is prohibited include occupied homes or buildings, schools and school grounds, and motor vehicles.
Most charges related to illegally firing a weapon are felonies and are likely to result in time spent in prison, fines, and loss of your right to own or possess a firearm. A felony conviction also may affect your ability to get hired for a job, obtain a security clearance, or rent an apartment.
Malicious or Unlawful Shooting
It’s a felony crime under Virginia Code §18.2-279 to endanger other people by shooting into an occupied dwelling or shooting at an occupied building with a firearm. The degree of felony depends on whether or not the shooting was malicious. If there was malice present — in other words if the shooting was done in an evil or vicious state of mind — the offense is a Class 4 felony, punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $100,000.
When the shooting was unlawful, but not malicious, the offense is a Class 6 felony, punishable by up to five years in prison and/or a maximum $2,500 fine.
Discharging a Gun in Public
Virginia also makes it a felony to willfully fire a weapon in public — defined as on a city street, in a public business, or a place of public gathering — when shooting it results in someone being injured. Virginia Code §18.2-280 makes discharging a firearm in public a Class 6 felony when someone is physically harmed by your actions. When no one is injured, it’s a Class 1 misdemeanor with penalties of up to 12 months in jail and/or a maximum $2,500 fine.
Discharging a Gun From or Into a Vehicle
Another set of statutes criminalizing discharge of a weapon address shooting out of or into a vehicle. Virginia Code §18.2-286.1 makes it a Class 5 felony for anyone inside of a motor vehicle to intentionally shoot a gun so that other people are put at risk of injury or death, or reasonably fear they’re at risk of injury or death. Generally, Class 5 felonies are punishable by up to 10 years in prison.
Virginia Code §18.2-154 makes it a Class 4 felony to maliciously shoot at motor vehicles, train cars, or boats.
Similar to the statute covering shooting inside of or at an occupied building, when you shoot at a motor vehicle, train car, or watercraft in a way that is unlawful but not malicious, the offense is a Class 6 felony.
Shooting at a Police Car, Ambulance, or Fire Truck
Virginia Code §18.2-154 contains an additional provision about shooting at a conspicuously marked police car, fire or rescue vehicle, ambulance, or any other emergency medical vehicle. The statute imposes a mandatory minimum sentence of one year in prison that must be served consecutively with any other sentence. The mandatory minimum applies regardless of whether the shooting was malicious or merely unlawful.
Shooting In or Near a School Building
Virginia specifically spells out offenses related to shooting at or inside a school building, or on school grounds, in a couple of statutes.
In Virginia Code §18.2-279 — the statute addressing shooting at or inside of occupied homes or buildings — shooting at a school building is a Class 4 felony even if the building is unoccupied.
In Virginia Code §18.2-280, the statute covering discharge of firearms in public, it’s a Class 4 felony to shoot a weapon upon the buildings and grounds of any school, whether public, private, or religious.
It’s also a Class 4 felony to shoot a gun on any public property within 1,000 feet of a public, private, or religious school.
The statutes related to discharging a firearm include some specific exemptions. If you fall under one of these circumstances, you may have a defense to a malicious or unlawful shooting charge.
Specific statutory exemptions include:
- Being a law enforcement officer who discharged a weapon in the course of duty
- Having a legal justification or excuse, such as defending yourself or your property
- If on school grounds, being involved in a program or curriculum sponsored by the school or permitted by the school
- Lawful hunting, if you fired a weapon within 1,000 feet of a school
For shooting charges that rely on your willfulness, a prosecutor has to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that you meant to fire the gun. If there’s evidence you didn’t intend to shoot the weapon, an experienced criminal defense attorney may be able to successfully argue for dismissal of your charge.
Facing discharging firearm charges in Virginia?
If you’ve been charged with a crime related to discharging a firearm in Virginia, the experienced criminal defense attorneys at Copenhaver, Ellett & Derrico can help evaluate the details of your case and your options. For an appointment at our Roanoke office, call us at (540) 343-9349.