A copperhead snake shown in April 2001. (Tim Johnson/The Herald-Dispatch via AP)

A Laurel man was arrested Sunday afternoon for allegedly shooting at a snake in his own backyard.

James Matthews Jr., 62, found out that not only is it illegal to kill snakes in Maryland, but firing a gun in the city of Laurel is illegal except in self-defense.

A poisonous copperhead coming your way might qualify as a case of self-defense, Laurel police spokeswoman Audrey Barnes said. But Matthews couldn’t prove that he was facing any such imminent harm. He didn’t know what sort of snake he shot, Barnes said, and when police searched the woods behind his house, they didn’t find any snake, dead or alive. That left Matthews facing a firearms charge.

If, on the other hand, he had been able to produce the snake, he might have been in trouble with the Department of Natural Resources. DNR ecologist Scott Smith said that 27 species of snake live in Maryland. Two are poisonous — the copperhead, which has been seen near Laurel, and the timber rattlesnake, which doesn’t live near the city.

All 27 are protected species and cannot be killed under state law, Smith said.

Matthews was arrested and released Sunday. He could not be reached for comment.