Discharge of Firearm Ordinance Being Challenged

Many Pennsylvania municipalities regulate the discharge of firearms.  The language of our state’s preemption law would seem to allow this, but it’s never been abundantly clear.  Now someone is challenging the City of Lancaster’s ordinance regarding discharge of firearms:

Swinton said his cousin was being attacked and beaten by a group of assailants and that he fired a warning shot to disperse them. He had a concealed-carry permit for the gun.

Police charged Swinton with reckless endangerment and illegal discharge of a firearm. The latter is a crime under an ordinance that City Council strengthened in 2007 at the urging of Mayor Rick Gray. Each shot — even a blank — is a separate offense and can result in a $500 fine and 90 days in jail. Swinton is the first person to be charged under the amended ordinance.

State law gives a person the right to fire a gun if he or she believes another person is in imminent threat of serious harm, Crystle said. The city ordinance, in contrast, says shooting is justified only in defense of one’s home, business or “human life.” The city can’t deny a right to Swinton that he has under state law, Crystle said.

My feeling is there has to be a self-defense exception to these ordinances, otherwise it would appear to fly in the face of state law and the state constitution.  If the ordinances aren’t written in that manner, than I have no problems with the court creating an exception.

This does, however, speak to relative legal hazard created when warning shots are used.  I’m not a fan of them.

13 thoughts on “Discharge of Firearm Ordinance Being Challenged”

  1. Most people assume that telling the police/courts that they fired a warning shot is better than that they fire a shot and missed.

    When in reality, the way the courts work make firing a warning shot a much more dangerous legal proposition.

    In fact, if one does fire a warning shot, they’re probably better off stating the fact as they fired a round – but missed!!! (If they didn’t die in the time they wasted the warning shot.)

  2. My instructors have all said that if you are legally justified in firing your gun in a self-defense situation you are legally justified to shoot the attacker. For you to shoot at the ground tells the legal system you weren’t sure you were actually in imminent danger of permanent injury or death. Hence, you are, in essence, saying you weren’t sure you were justified in drawing and using your gun at all.

    Now if their behavior changes between the time you draw and the time you shoot to stop the attack you can, and should, decide to not fire.

    Another way to look at it is that firing a “warning shot” gives the attacker information that doesn’t do a whole lot for your situation. 1) It says the gun was loaded and able to fire. 2) You are unsure as to whether you want to harm the attacker.

    The information I want to signal to the attacker is more along the lines of, “If you don’t immediatelystop what you are doing I will stop you.” SIgnaling that you are unsure you as to whether you will stop them or not does not improve your situation.

    Still another data point is that I’ve never heard of police being training to fire warning shots.

    1. I agree with all of your points Joe. Of course, the way the ordinance is written, even if you happen to shoot someone justifiably in self-defense, you’re still technically liable for the discharge ordinance. I think Lancaster’s ordinance is a problem as written, even if this particular case isn’t the smartest example of discharge in self-defense. Depending on the circumstances, I may not actually have a problem with the endangerment charge.

  3. Another point to be made is that if you firearm fails to fire you have given the attacker additional information you really didn’t want him to have. I mean, what are you going to do at that point? You have just demonstrated that you have nothing but, in essence, a rock in your hand and you were threatening him with it. If he is capable taking you down is probably is going to take you down.

  4. I’m not a lawyer, but I’m pretty sure there is the concept of “affirmative defense”. That works like this, “Yes, I broke the law. But I was justified in doing so.” Examples include exceeding the speed limit while driving someone seriously injured to the emergency room. In those cases it would be up to the prosecutor (and/or a judge and jury) to decide whether you should be punished.

    This was what they tried to do in Ohio with regards to carrying guns. Yes, you have a state constitutional right to keep and bear arms. But there is a law against carrying a firearm in public. if you get caught in public with one you can defend yourself in public by saying you had a need to carry it because you carried a lot of money as part of your business, or you were in fear of your life because of threats, etc. Hence, the Brady people argued, you could exercise your state guaranteed right but you had to demonstrate a need. The state supreme court struck down (IIRC) that line of reasoning.

  5. “Swinton said his cousin was being attacked and beaten by a group of assailants and that he fired a warning shot to disperse them. He had a concealed-carry permit for the gun.”

    Actually, this is one of the very few situations I can think of where a warning shot might be the right thing. A group of attackers in a fistfight against only one person can get very tightly packed, and you don’t want to get within arms reach trying to break it up.

    If they ignored verbal warnings, and he was afraid that he’d hit his cousin if he shot at the attackers (either through overpenetration or a miss) then a warning shot would get their attention and hopefully scare them off – which appears to be what happened.

  6. I would tend to think “Stop, or I’ll shoot!” said loudly and with enough force should be enough to get anyone to pay attention to you.

  7. Stop or I will shoot may not even penetrate with men in a fight. A gunshot will!. A man with a gun facing a number of men that are in a fighting mood can lose unless he is prepared to lill them all.

    Some aggresive men will charge even if they are aware that you have a gun, people are not rational in the best of times and in a fight rationality goes out the window.

    I think it best not to question the men in the situation as they had the best knowledge and ability to manage it.

    A law that make discharge a weapon in this case should be overturned. A warning shot may not be the best in most situations but each case is different. In this case it may have been the best choice.

    So lets not Monday morning quarterback the mans actions but focus on the law that needs to be overturned.

  8. If you fire a gun in a populated area you need to know what your bullet hit. That is why all of my liberal friends want more gun control, too many stray bullets killing little girls playing jump-rope. If you carry a gun learn to shoot well and know where every shot went. That said I hope he gets off he has a right to defend his family and did not want to kill any one that day.

  9. Sebastian, that’s why I said that if they ignored verbal warnings, then a warning shot might be appropriate. As RAH said, “Stop or I will shoot may not even penetrate with men in a fight.” Often, very little outside of the fight itself will be noticed by those involved, even by the attackers.

  10. If it was me if I pull my gun I will shoot to kill. That is if my family or I was in immediate danger. I will hope that he gets off it will be a blow for the legal gun owners. The goverment keeps making it harder for innocent to keep there licences and most are broken by them first.

Comments are closed.