Shooting Down Drones: What You Should Know

There have been a number of cases in recent years of people shooting down drones that came on their property. Often enough they were piloted by other private citizens that were just messing about, but this begs some serious questions.

Can you shoot down a drone? The answer is maybe.

Drones are a sticky issue, as the use of the little flying machines involves unresolved issues over where private property starts and ends, as well as privacy concerns. There are also drones in use by government agencies, which complicates matters further.

Location of the Drone: Private Property Vs Navigable Airspace

A spying drone
Drones Trap shooting target?

Part of the drone issue is the boundary line between private property and navigable airspace, as the air becomes - for all intents and purposes - a public highway at a certain altitude. You can own a piece of land, that's not in question. However, a property owner only has dominion over a finite amount of vertical space.

What is that limit? Good question! Albeit with a complicated answer.

The first part of the answer is that the Federal Aviation Administration sets navigable airspace to 500 feet off the ground as a general rule, or 360 feet above the tallest structure where appropriate. Tenets of English and later American common law held that a landowner has control over their land "up to the heavens and down to hell" but after the advent of the airplane, the rules of the game had to change. Otherwise, every person that ever took a flight would be guilty of trespassing.

The Supreme Court ruled in Causby v US that landowners have control over the airspace that allows them to use and enjoy their land, but no more. Granted, the FAA later set the hard floor at 500 feet for aircraft, and has furthermore decreed that drones must stay below 400 feet to keep from interfering with piloted aircraft.

Imagine a highway between two farms. On either side of the road is an easement. We all know the highway and the easement are public land, but imagine that you don't know entirely know where the actual farmland ends and the easement begins. Regarding the drone issue, where exactly does private airspace end and public begin?

That is a gray area, and yet to be fully settled.

Drones and Privacy

What about drones and people's right to privacy? That was at the heart of a number of cases in recent years where a citizen shot down a drone being operated by a recreational user. The most famous to date was the 2015 case of William Meredith in Kentucky, who shot down a drone in 2015. Meredith wasn't held criminally liable for shooting the drone, though he was initially arrested on charges related to discharging a firearm within city limits.

However, the civil suit that was filed by the drone's owner is another matter.

Privacy From Drones

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Privacy From Drones

The judge ruled that the drone had invaded the privacy of Meredith and his family, exculpating him from criminal charges but not the civil suit filed by the drone owner.

That said, drones pose an interesting quandary as far as privacy is concerned.

On the one hand, a drone in any hands (be it for recreational, business or governmental/law enforcement purposes) can be obviously be used inappropriately, but where does the line get drawn between violating privacy and seeing what would otherwise be in plain sight?

Consider the following hypothetical: a person is wearing very little clothing whilst sunbathing in a fenced backyard. This person has a reasonable expectation of privacy because they are purposefully sunning themselves in an isolated location. However, if that same person is sunning themselves with very little clothing in an unfenced front yard, that same expectation of privacy is much more tenuous. After all, they're in the front yard for all to see.

A drone can potentially - depending on altitude, the quality of the camera, etc. - see either hypothetical person. In the latter hypothetical, it would be hard to argue said person's privacy was invaded because they were sunning themselves in plain sight. In the former case they obviously weren't, which is an invasion of privacy since the person in this hypothetical took pains to ensure they weren't in plain sight.

Currently, there aren't any legal provisions dealing with drones and privacy on a federal level, neither are there any SCOTUS decisions that would be appropriate - the Supreme Court hasn't touched on the issue as yet.

Also, how do you know a drone is looking at you or anyone else on your property? Hovering outside your window...okay. Hovering at 397 feet...good luck proving it prior to getting a copy of video footage.

Can I Shoot Drones?

Can I go Drone hunting?

Okay, so there's a lot of gray area; so can I shoot drones or not if they come on my property?

No, you can't.

First, city limits impose restrictions on gun fire. Specifically, you generally can't shoot unless you're shooting someone who poses you a lethal threat.

What about those who live in the country?

That's still a "no." While the Meredith case (as well as a few others) were ruled to be justifiable shootings, the FAA began circulating in 2016 that they considered drones to be aircraft and thus were under their jurisdiction. As a result, interfering with, sabotaging or shooting them down is a federal crime, as is the same with aircraft.

Furthermore, the presence of a drone doesn't establish who is operating it. Drones are generally used for one of 3 purposes: recreational, business and uses related to law enforcement.

Playing Trap with a Drone

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Playing Trap with a Drone

Law enforcement use can require a warrant, so you'd face both FAA charges as well as obstruction of justice if you shot one down. Conscientious operators of drones for commercial purposes will do what they can to avoid flying over areas where they don't have permission, though they may come close - commercial drone operators are often employed by real estate and surveying companies, so that is something to consider.

Also, since property lines can get a little...let's say the country (not everyone is acutely aware of where their property boundaries are, especially with larger plots) so it would certainly not do to attempt to shoot down a drone unless it was definitely inside your property lines, which makes it a tough call for Castle Doctrine as well.

Drones exist in a serious gray area. It's difficult to tell where trespassing ends and use of public airway begins, unless you have one heck of a rangefinder. It's also hard to tell if or when your privacy is actually being invaded. It's also illegal - and under FAA regulations, you can get up to 20 years for shooting one down, nevermind ancillary charges like discharging a firearm in city limits if applicable, reckless endangerment and so on.

So don't do it. If you see a drone that you think doesn't have any business being around, best to pursue other remedies.

Want to learn more about shooting and concealed carry? Bigfoot's got you covered!

Sam Hoober  

About The Author

Born in southeastern Washington State, Sam Hoober graduated in 2011 from Eastern Washington University. He resides in the great Inland Northwest, with his wife and child. His varied interests and hobbies include camping, fishing, hunting, and spending time at the gun range as often as possible.

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