Path-Breaking California Ban on Lead Ammo Takes Effect Today 

The Golden State is the nation’s first to adopt a ban on toxic and deadly hunting hardware

Bullets should not keep killing long after they’ve left the barrel of a firearm. Starting today in California, they won’t.

I worked with other advocates on a series of California bills starting more than a decade ago to ban the use of lead ammunition in the state. In 2013, state lawmakers passed a sweeping anti-lead ammo bill, signed by former Governor Jerry Brown, phasing in a ban over six years. The final phase – covering all species, on public and private lands, for all firearms (rifles, shotguns, pistols and muzzleloaders) and for any gauge or caliber – takes effect today, making California the first state banning lead in hunting.

There may be more than 15 to 20 million wild animals a year who die from lead poisoning, with the ground-feeding birds mistaking the lead fragments for seeds and predators and carrion feeders consuming the remains of animals with lead embedded in their bodies. With more than 130 species known to suffer from the toxic effects of spent lead ammunition, it’s a staggering toll. Scavenging birds like condors, owls, eagles, and hawks, as well as mammals like coyotes, are all at risk. Death from lead poisoning is painful, and even when lead exposure isn’t high enough to kill an animal, it doesn’t take much to weaken an animal to the point that it succumbs to predation or disease.

Bans on lead ammunition work. In 1991, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s ban on lead ammunition in waterfowl hunting took effect after a five-year phase in. It is estimated to have saved as many as 1.4 million ducks and geese and other migratory waterfowl every year since.

Sadly, too many federal and state fish and wildlife agencies, defying the overwhelming science in favor of banning lead ammo, have persistently caved in to hunting and gun and ammunition interests and kept restrictions weak or non-existent when it comes to lead.

We’ve known that lead kills for 2,000 years. And in recent decades, lead has been removed from paint, gasoline, and other consumer products because it kills.

With alternative products available – including steel, copper and bismuth ammunition – why not require the switch, in a similar way that state and federal wildlife managers don’t allow other dangerous or unethical practices, such as jacklighting deer, hunting with poisons, or shooting animals from automobiles? Lead poisoning does far more damage than any of those aforementioned practices ever did.

As America watched the residents of Flint, Michigan unpack boxes of bottled water in the battle against lead contamination in its water system, we must use our new sensitivity to the destructive potential of this heavy metal to address a different kind of lead epidemic – millions of hunters discharging millions of pounds of lead ammo into our waterways, forests, and up and down the biological food chain throughout the United States.

The scientific and anecdotal evidence is as attention-getting as a 21-gun salute – with lead the leading cause of death for years for the highly endangered California condor, to higher lead levels in the blood for families relying on the meat of wild animals, to wildlife rehabilitation centers taking in bald and golden eagles and other animals reduced to quivering wrecks.

Scientists have called lead ammo the “greatest, largely unregulated source of lead knowingly discharged into the environment in the United States.” Since it breaks into fragments upon impact, lead inevitably makes its way into the food chain as animals feed off of carcasses left in the field by hunters. Hunting families are at risk too, with meat from wild animals containing often invisible lead shards.

Toward the end of the Obama era, the U.S. Department of the Interior announced policies to phase in policies to require the use of nontoxic ammunition when a firearm is discharged on the more than 160 million acres of federal lands managed by the National Park Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Sadly, the new teams under the Trump Administration that came in to the Interior Department wiped away those policies on their first day in power.

Regardless of what political leaders do or don’t do, hunters pursuing their hobby can choose lead alternatives and mitigate the effects of the discharge of their weapons on wildlife.  Readily available and comparably priced copper and steel ammunition is outperforming archaic lead loads and doesn’t continue to kill days, weeks, and months after leaving the gun.

But sadly, with their heels firmly planted in the ground, groups like the National Rifle Association contrive a conspiracy even when it’s in their self-interest to act.  But poke around on the websites of the biggest ammo manufacturers and you’ll find even the firearms industry singing the praises of lead alternatives. “Looking for premium performance without the premium price?” asks one brand-name maker of steel shot. Well, it will sell you a shell that “delivers denser patterns for greater lethality and is zinc-plated to prevent corrosion.”

Sport hunters often cite the legacy of President Teddy Roosevelt in the context of their pastime. He is perhaps one of our nation’s best-known conservationists and hunters. But he understood that “conserve” is an action verb, and not an historical artifact. It requires active engagement, and not just proudly looking back to conservation gains ushered in a century ago.

If Flint has taught us anything, it’s that we cannot wait until a public health crisis erupts to address an obvious problem. Lead kills people and non-human animals alike. California has shown the way, and the implementation of its ban is a celebratory moment for the nation. A national ban on toxic ammunition would hit the bulls-eye in ending decades of unintended and unnecessary destruction of our nation’s cherished wildlife.

(Many thanks to AWA intern Meredith Hou for her outstanding research.)

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