Lies of the Lead Menace

Aug 26, 2013
Editor's note: Today's feature was written and provided to The Outdoor Wire Digital Network by Jeff Knox of the Firearms Coalition.

The California legislature is on the verge of passing a bill banning the use of traditional ammunition - bullets containing lead - for hunting statewide. The justification for the ban is that the giant, endangered carrion eater, the California Condor, is seriously threatened by lead poisoning from ingesting bullet fragments in game animals. Proponents of the ban say that hunters leave carcasses or gut piles containing lead fragments in the field where the birds consume it causing them to become sick and die. Even though research into the problem was extremely sketchy, in 2007, the California legislature bypassed the scientific review process of the state's Fish and Game Commission, and instituted a ban on the use of common, lead-based bullets in areas where the condors live and feed.

The ban failed to get results. Even though 99% of California hunters complied with the ban, lead levels in condors actually went up over the subsequent 5 years. In response to this failure, rather than investigating and mitigating other possible sources for the lead poisoning, the groups that demanded the lead bullet ban in 2007 have again bypassed the Fish and Game Commission, again refused to produce credible scientific evidence and research, and again gone directly to the legislature to get the lead bullet ban expanded statewide.

That legislation passed the Assembly and is in a committee of the Senate. It could soon be voted on by the full Senate. Some reports say Governor Jerry Brown has indicated that he will sign the legislation if it comes to his desk.

There is no question that lead is a serious problem for condors. But there is a question as to the source of the lead in the condors, and unfortunately, there has been very limited solid research into this critical question. That the lead comes from the bullets of hunters has been presented as an obvious, unquestionable fact, but it has never been proven. This blind assumption that hunters are to blame is not surprising from organizations and individuals who have been actively working to ban hunting for decades. Groups like the Humane Society of the US, the Center for Biological Diversity, and Defenders of Wildlife are radically opposed to all hunting. Some have even spelled out their intention to eradicate hunting incrementally, species by species, and state by state, starting with California. With these groups leading the charge against lead ammunition, is it any wonder that hunters are suspicious of the motives and data being presented to support the ban?>
The California Condor will eat almost anything. A pair of condors was observed consuming paint chips off of a fire lookout tower. They subsequently shared food containing the paint with their two young. All four contracted lead poisoning from the paint; one had to be hospitalized. (Photo:
Hunters have put up their defenses - sometimes rejecting even good research if it conflicts with their interests. They see this drill as an assault on hunting. Had the process followed established protocols, hunters, when presented with solid, scientific research and good facts would have been leaders in protecting and restoring the condors as they have restored deer, turkey, goose, duck, elk and other wildlife populations - and their habitat. Hunters initiated special taxes on their gear that, along with their license fees, goes directly to shooting, hunting, and conservation programs. Those dollars make up the lion's share of US conservation funding.

One of the biggest concerns hunters have about lead bans is the cost and availability of lead-free bullet options - not to mention concerns about bullet performance. While advocates of the bans like to claim that there are good, lead-free alternatives readily available, the truth is that these projectiles, along with being expensive and often hard to find, could be declared illegal under existing federal law.

In 1984, Congress went on a bender over the trumped up issue of "cop-killer bullets." It didn't matter that no police officer had ever been killed by one of these bullets penetrating his vest, the media and politicians had gotten it into their heads that "armor-piercing" handgun ammunition existed for only one purpose - killing police officers - and they were determined to see those bullets banned. Unfortunately, the leadership of the NRA at the time didn't believe they could stop an armor-piercing bullet ban so they decided to work with the politicians to craft an "acceptable" ban.

What was eventually passed was legislation banning the manufacture and sale of, "a projectile or projectile core which may be used in a handgun and which is constructed ... from one or a combination of tungsten alloys, steel, iron, brass, bronze, beryllium copper, or depleted uranium." (18 U.S.C. § 921) The law goes on to give the Attorney General the power to make exceptions and exclusions.

Here's the problem though: since 1986 when that law was passed, handguns have been produced for almost every cartridge imaginable - including traditional rifle cartridges. The law bans brass and copper bullets "which may be used in a handgun," and that has become virtually any bullet. The ATF has already shut down at least one small company that was manufacturing specialty copper rifle bullets based on the idea that the bullets could be used in a handgun. With a law like this on the books, the banning of lead ammunition leaves hunters with few alternatives, and most of those alternatives could be taken away with the stroke of a bureaucrat's pen. That's a serious concern.

Lead can be a danger, but lead is not nuclear waste. Lead in the form of bullets - or bullet fragments - poses little threat to most birds, humans or other mammals. If this weren't true, the fields around Gettysburg, Fredericksburg, and Manassas, Virginia (where the water table can be less than 4 feet below the surface) would be toxic wastelands today.

Lead in paint, gasoline, and some batteries is much more dangerous because it is much more readily absorbable by humans and animals alike. The important thing about making laws and regulations regarding lead is that the laws have to be based on credible science and extensive, honest research, not assumptions, prejudices, and hidden agendas.

--Jeff Knox