Hey Texplainer: A state lawmaker who was hit in the head by a stray bullet during a New Year’s celebration says he plans to file a bill to stop "celebratory gunfire." Isn't shooting your gun into the air already illegal in Texas?
Firing a gun to express your jubilation is always stupid — as the plight of state Rep. Armando Martinez, D-Weslaco, highlights — but it's not always illegal. Texas has laws banning the practice, but the statutes don't seem to account for every possible scenario.
It's complicated, but here is what the law says: Anyone who fires a gun in a public place without a legitimate reason — you aren’t protecting yourself or shooting in a firing range — is committing disorderly conduct. That's a Class B misdemeanor, meaning you could face up to 180 days in jail and/or a $2,000 fine if you're caught.
For reasons that aren't entirely clear, the punishment is less severe if you fire your gun "on or across a public road." In that case, it's a Class C misdemeanor — nothing more serious than a traffic ticket.
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But that doesn’t cover guns fired into the air on private property. In those cases, the shooter could be charged with disorderly conduct. State law says a crime is committed if a gun is fired in the direction of a person, house, car or vehicle. But the shooter might not be violating Texas law if he or she is alone on a West Texas ranch firing into the air on New Year’s Eve. (Murphy's Law, the law of gravity and basic common sense suggest it's still a bad idea.)
In cities, there’s less leeway. Anyone who recklessly fires a gun within the boundaries of a city with more than 100,000 residents can be jailed for up to one year and fined up to $4,000 — even if he or she fires the gun on his or her own property. State Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, wrote that law in 1995 with celebratory gunfire in mind.
"Even a bullet fired straight up in the air on private property can cause severe injury when it lands," a 1995 report on the bill by the House Research Organization said. "People are being shot by randomly fired bullets as they stroll down a street or watch television in their living rooms."
Martinez might try to make the rules more restrictive statewide. He was hit with a bullet near Weslaco early Sunday morning, and later described it as feeling like he had been hit over the head with a sledgehammer. He needed surgery to have the bullet removed. The Hidalgo County Sheriff's Office is conducting a criminal investigation. Meanwhile, Martinez is planning a bill to stop future accidental shootings.
“Something dealing with celebratory gunfire, definitely,” he told the Tribune this week. “But I need to talk to our sheriff’s department and maybe our (district attorney) and see exactly what type of ideas they have as well, so that way we can get an idea of how we’re going to do it and propose it.”
A broader law would by no means guarantee that the celebratory fire would stop. Texas' biggest cities still struggle to stop the shootings, even though it's already illegal within their borders. A year ago in Houston, police received 630 calls of guns being fired on or around New Year's Eve. During that same period in Dallas, police said they received more than 900 such calls.
Finding out who fired those shots is not easy. Police are busy on New Year’s Eve and don’t have the resources to immediately respond to each call. Paul Stokes, an assistant chief at the Dallas Police Department, said it can take up to an hour for an officer to arrive at the scene for a random gunshot call on New Year's. Often, the best an officer can do at that point is drive up and down the street to investigate.
“Even if we were right there and had a specific address, most times, folks will step outside, discharge their weapon and then step back in,” he said. “They know it is against the law.”
Bottom line: You’re tempting fate if you shoot your gun in the air. And if you do it in public or in a city, you’re probably breaking the law.