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How public shooting is regulated in Washington state

The idea that you can be hanging out at a backyard barbecue and be killed by a stray bullet fired from over a half-mile away isn’t something you probably think about, but it happened to a young woman Sunday in Ferndale.

While Whatcom County is still trying to figure out who fired the shot and whether to charge that person, it got us thinking about the rules about where and when you can fire your gun.

Washington state law is pretty clear. You can’t fire your gun if you’re within 500 feet of homes or businesses. You can’t fire down roads or trails, and you can’t be reckless or careless.

But if you’re on private property and following those rules, state law has very few restrictions.

Whatcom County Undersheriff Jeff Parks said local jurisdictions can do little to change that. “Cities and counties can’t enact their own more restrictive statutes for most of the sections that law covered by the RCW,” he said.

Cities and counties all have no-shooting zones covering their urban areas, so you can’t just fire a gun in your backyard unless it’s in self-defense or for protection.

But once you get in rural settings, county councils have to create their own no-shooting zones where they think guns and the area just don’t mix. There are 22 of these zones in Whatcom County. “Even within a shooting-restricted zone, there may be some allowable exceptions, such as an established range or a scenario where there’s target practice,” Undersheriff Parks said.

The shot that killed 23-year-old Alyssa Smith came from over a half-mile away from a group of five people firing where it is legal to do so. They were not in a no-shooting zone.

The person who fired the shot can be held civilly or criminal liable if it’s determined the shooter was acting carelessly.

So how often does this happen? Does anyone track stray bullet injuries or deaths?

There is no database on stray bullet shootings, but the University of California at Davis recently tried to research it. Between 2008 and 2009 in the US, it found 284 stray bullet cases that led to the injury or death of 317 people. Most were bullets that came from gun fights or gang battles the victims had nothing to do with.

A handful came from hunting or target shooting. A few were from celebratory gun shots fired into the air.

In one case, a man was sitting at his dinner table when a shot fired from a hunter more than 700 feet away hit and killed him. The shooter was convicted of manslaughter.

Outside of this study, I found a 2010 case where a 4-year-old boy sitting at his parents’ feet during a church service was hit and killed when a New Year’s Eve celebratory shot came through the ceiling of the church and hit him in the head. The shot likely came from more than a mile away. The shooter was never found.

Robert Lee, 23, of Bellingham, and Douglas Quiding Jr., 40, of Ferndale have been charged in the stray shooting in Whatcom County but not with Alyssa Smith’s death. Both are charged with being felons in possession of a firearm. The county prosecutor’s office is still determining whether to charge anyone in her death.

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