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What are the consequences of firing a gun in a US national park due to distress? (for instance, shooting at an attacking animal, or firing in the air to attract attention when stranded)

There is a notorious controversy regarding the use of firearms for self defense, but let's set that aside and consider the following situations:

  1. Hiker in a national park got stranded, became scared for his life and fired in the air to attract attention.
  2. Hiker was attacked by an animal, feared for his life, shot at the animal, missed and the animal ran away.
  3. Same as 2 except the animal was hit, injured, and ran away.
  4. Same as 2 except the animal was killed.

Let's also set aside the complicated legal situation with regards to firearms in the US, and assume the hiker in question was carrying his weapon in a manner fully compliant with the applicable law.

Since gunfire is loud and considered suspicious, I imagine all 4 of these scenarios would attract attention from park rangers, rescue personnel, and possibly other emergency services. I imagine they would start searching for the source immediately, and probably arrive near where the shot was fired in a matter of hours at most.

Suppose also the hiker makes no attempt to flee or hide from anyone who does arrive. When someone arrives on the scene, and the situation is explained (ie. fired a gun because believed to have no other option), what happens next?

Would the hiker get a long lecture from the rangers and a fine? Would they get arrested? Would this be considered an irresponsible/unwarranted discharge of a firearm? Would shooting the animal be treated as poaching (even though clearly the intent was not to hunt)?

  • In case this is not obvious to some people: relying on gun shots as a means to alert rescue is a really bad idea. They might just as likely not be heard at all, and even if they're heard, locating the origin can be extremely hard... Get yourself a sat-phone, emergency beacon or other more reliable device. – fgysin May 11 '16 at 10:58
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    In the case it is not obvious to some people: the question does not imply that I intend to, nor am I claiming you should, rely on gun shots as a primary means of emergency signalling. – Superbest May 12 '16 at 23:23
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In your first example (a lost hiker firing shots into the air) at minimum a citation should be issued, firing into the air is a violation of basic gun safety; you don't know where that bullet is going to come back down.

Consider also that most visitors to National Parks are unfamiliar with the area and the wildlife; there will be little sympathy for someone shooting an animal that experienced outdoorsmen would not consider a danger.

In general it's illegal to discharge a firearm in a national park, although there are some units of the National Park Service that do allow hunting. (Perhaps more likely in units like "National Recreation Areas", as most Parks are quite restrictive in what you can do and where you can go.) If you do find a need to discharge a firearm in self-defense or distress, the legal situation will still end up very complicated.

The possible responses range from a lecture or written warning to a citation or prosecution. For example, a Wyoming man was successfully prosecuted (by a jury that included hunters) for killing a Grizzly although he claimed self-defense, while a woman in Glacier National Park was given a written warning after firing shots to scare away an aggressive deer.

Factors determining the response will include how far way the animal was, whether the person had other options for escaping the situation, the behavior of the animal, and probably the demeanor of the shooter and mood of the ranger. These are very situational and are not set out in statutes.

On a final note, "in a matter of hours at most" likely depends on the park and terrain; particularly out West the parks are not small. In the more remote areas it's quite possible a gunshot might not be heard at all, and the response time may take many hours even if it could be located. Yellowstone, for example, is 2.2 million acres and as the crow flies, 100km north to south and 87km east to west.

  • scare away an aggressive deer... o_O – user2766 May 9 '16 at 12:25
  • I suppose it means a buck. I had this vision of a rampaging bamby... – user2766 May 9 '16 at 12:25
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    @Liam -- I knew a couple of people when I was younger who had been hospitalized due to being attacked by a male deer during rut. – Russell Steen May 9 '16 at 12:45
  • I was charged by a buck when I was young. I had to climb a tree to escape. – Don Branson May 9 '16 at 15:16
  • Deer on a golf course in my home town used to mug golfers for their cigarettes so that they could eat the tobacco leaves. – Ben Crowell May 10 '16 at 17:40

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