A shot in the dark: Expansion of gun rights and civil liability

As you may have read, a Florida State Student was recently injured and another killed when a friend accidentally discharged a firearm in his apartment. According to Lindsay Peterson from the Tampa Tribune in Florida, Ashley Cownie of Orange Park, Florida died as a result of a rifle shot to the chest. The bullet passed through her completely and then struck fellow Florida State student Keith Savino, injuring him as well, although not critically. The shooting was purely accidental and resulted from a fellow student showing off his new flashlight attached to his rifle while he believed the gun to be unloaded.

Across the country, two students were injured when a gun that a classmate had brought to school accidentally discharged. According to the Associated Press article, the boy had the gun in his backpack. When he reached in to get something to eat, the gun accidentally fired. The bullet passed through a boy's neck and struck a girl in the head. The girl remains in critical condition as of January 21, while the boy had been released from the hospital and is recovering from home.

While these unfortunate accidents took place in Florida and California, accidental shootings have become of much more interest to Iowans, especially in light of the new law regulating how gun permits will be issued. See the Des Moines Register article Gun law Q & A. Regardless of you position on the issue, most will agree that the new law has sparked a new and recently unrivaled surge in applications to carry and acquire. Approximately 1,500 applications have already been made this year for permits to carry and permits to acquire in Polk County alone, requiring the Sheriff's office to extend their hours. (1473 weapons permits received in 1 county)

Given the new interest in owning and carrying firearms, many Iowans are concerned about what responsibility a gun owner may have towards someone they harm while in possession of that firearm. The answer is relatively straight forward: an individual in possession of a gun, whether legally or not, must at least use ordinary care in handling the weapon. If he or she does not, that person can be held liable for injuries or damages caused to another person. The legal term for failure to use ordinary care is negligence. The "negligence standard" applies in civil causes of action regardless of whether the individual that hurts someone by his negligent actions is charged or convicted of a crime.

Under the United States and Iowa Constitutions and laws, citizens certainly have a right to possess and carry a firearm, subject to certain limitations. This does not however absolve them of their responsibility to handle those guns in a safe and appropriate manner. In fact, it can be argued that one in possession of a gun has a heightened responsibility to be careful and vigilant in its handling so as to ensure the safety of those around them. This is especially true in public where more people are present and could be potentially harmed or if an individual has been consuming alcohol.

While gun laws have not directly been expanded, the new law providing uniformity to the application process has certainly given rise to a surge in ownership. A citizen's right to own and carry a weapon comes with a corresponding responsibility to ensure the safety of those around them. While the majority of gun owners are responsible and safe, those that aren't may well find themselves responsible for any harm they cause by their lack of diligence.