Where Can You Legally Fire a Gun?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Dec. 18 2012 5:49 PM

Where Can I Fire My Gun?

A mini-Explainer on how states regulate the discharge of firearms.

Duck Hunting.
You can shoot a gun in the countryside sometimes, but not in your backyard.

Juli-anne Whittle/iStockphoto/Thinkstock.

People in Newtown, Conn., “are used to gunfire,” according to a story published Sunday in the New York Times. In recent years, however, the shots became more common and came from more places, prompting an argument over gun control. The story has one Explainer reader wondering, where are people allowed to fire their weapons in most American towns?

The laws are inconsistent. Most of the laws dictating where a gun can be fired are passed on the local level. Many large American cities and towns have a complete ban on firing a gun within city limits. For example, in Colorado, a state that is often criticized for lax gun control laws, most of the largest municipalities prohibit private citizens from discharging a firearm unless in a shooting gallery. The governments of many rural areas allow people to fire guns on their own property, but some require the land to be of a certain minimum size. Texas, for example, allows localities to prohibit firing on private lots of less than 10 acres.

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A few states have enacted broad location restrictions on the state level. New York prohibits discharging a firearm in any public place. Other states have more targeted bans, leaving local governments to make most of the decisions. Many state legislatures have banned the firing of guns in or near the state capitol, and some states prohibit firing a gun such that the bullet passes over a public highway. State lawmakers have also banned the discharge of firearms in public parks or on school property. Some states ban their citizens from shooting within 500 feet of an occupied dwelling—an ordinance that is on the books, but reportedly rarely enforced, in Newtown.

Connecticut used to ban gunfire in any city without the permission of the mayor, but the state replaced that restriction with a vaguer prohibition on firing guns “in such a manner as to be likely to cause bodily injury or death.” This provision, which isn’t quite a location restriction, is in force in several other states. Connecticut has thus left most location restrictions to local governments.

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Brian Palmer writes about science, medicine, and the environment for Slate and the Natural Resources Defense Council. Email him at explainerbrian@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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