Guns in America: The Debate Over Lead-Based Bullets

The battle over lead-based ammunition began decades ago and continues today. On his final day in office, Barack Obama enacted a ban on lead-based ammunition. Six weeks later, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke rescinded the order. Jose A. Bernat Bacete/Getty

One of the last actions Barack Obama took during his last full day as president was to quietly enact a ban on lead-based ammunition and fishing tackle, which the White House said would protect animals and fish from poisoning. An order signed on January 19 by the director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) called for a phase-out by 2022 of the use of toxic lead on federal lands, such as national parks and wildlife refuges.

Six weeks later, Ryan Zinke, on his first day as secretary of the interior, revoked the regulation, saying it "was issued without significant communication, consultation or coordination with affected stakeholders." His action came after gun rights advocacy groups, including the National Rifle Association and the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), had called for the Trump administration to immediately reverse the order.

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The battle over lead began more than 25 years ago. In 1991, the FWS banned the use of lead in ammunition used to hunt water birds (a ban that was not affected by the Obama or Zinke actions), but its use in ammunition for upland hunting, shooting sports and in fishing remained widespread, according to the National Wildlife Health Center. For years, environmental groups, scientists, doctors and public health experts have asked the federal Environmental Protection Agency to, at a minimum, limit lead in the manufacturing of bullets and shotgun pellets for hunting or recreation. After all, they argued, lead has been nearly eliminated in other products, like paint and gasoline.

Below, we break down how states handle lead-based ammunition and fishing tackle, and what each side of the debate thinks about the use of the soft and dense metal.

What Are the Laws?

Because of its mass and malleability, lead has long been the primary metal used for ammunition. In the United States, 95 percent of all ammunition is traditional, meaning it's made with a lead component, according to the NSSF. But there are some localized restrictions on lead ammunition and fishing tackle. Some states have limited the use of lead ammunition in areas where hunters pursue upland birds, including quail and pheasants, while others have restricted the use of lead fishing weights and hooks. In New Hampshire, for example, the law prohibits the use of certain sizes of lead fishing weights and hooks in all of the state's fresh waters. And an order that took effect there in June 2016 bans the use and sale of lead weights and hooks weighing an ounce or less.

California soon will become the first state to completely ban hunting with lead bullets, under a bill approved by legislators and signed by the Democratic governor in 2013. The state is now in the process of phasing out such ammunition by 2019, after lawmakers sought less toxic alternatives for hunting, including copper or steel.

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State officials in 2008 also banned lead ammunition in counties where the iconic California condors fly and feed. The birds, which also visit Arizona and Utah, are among the largest and rarest in North America. After they identified that lead poisoning was a leading cause of death in California condors, state officials in both Arizona and Utah implemented voluntary non-lead ammunition programs by supplying hunters with alternative bullets if they hunt in condor territory.

What Critics Say About Obama's Ban

Gun rights advocates and hunting groups immediately criticized the Obama administration's order as an attack on outdoors types. Lawrence Keane, senior vice president of the NSSF, tells Newsweek he had several issues with the Obama ban, namely the timing of its rollout and the administration's lack of advance dialogue with sportsmen or conservation groups. "The timing of the order, on literally the last day of the administration," he says, "tells you everything you need to know about the political nature of the order." The NSSF is the trade association for the firearms and ammunition industry.

At the state level, many were upset—and even offended—that the Obama administration took top-down action on ammunition and tackle without first consulting local authorities across the country, and thus breached a long tradition of working in partnership, says Greg Sheehan, director of the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources and chairman of the Lead and Fish and Wildlife Health Working Group. Among their tasks in managing most wildlife species, state authorities establish hunting and fishing seasons and the methods and means by which those activities can occur.

States are against putting unnecessary restrictions on American hunters, preferring to examine the threats and risk at certain local habitats in searching for community-based solutions. "To sort of throw a blanket across America and say, 'Here is the direction we need to move' isn't really based on science," Sheehan tells Newsweek. "We're supportive of taking limited action, but not just saying, 'Here, we found an eagle who died in Mississippi who died from some lead contamination, so no more lead ammunition in America.'"

That's not all: Keane and others also say the lead ban would have caused ammunition prices to skyrocket and argue there isn't scientific evidence to defend the Obama administration's order. Ultimately, they say, the hunter should decide the type of ammunition he or she uses, because the sport is a critical management tool for populations.

"The science of wildlife management is premised on managing populations; you don't manage to prevent harm to individual animals in a species. If that is what wildlife management is about, then you have just made the argument to ban hunting, which is a vital wildlife management tool and widely accepted in America even by nonhunters," Keane says.

The answer to the question about whether fears about the use of lead are science-based, or whether lead is even a health risk to animals and humans, depends on whom you ask. Keane argues there is neither scientific evidence nor a public health risk for hunters consuming wild game harvested with lead-based ammunition.

What Supporters Say About Obama's Ban

Meanwhile, environmentalists, scientists and public health experts view lead bullets as harmful to the environment and say lead can be toxic to humans and animals. They viewed the Obama administration's ban as a small but important step in minimizing lead damage to wildlife, because lead-based bullets can fragment into hundreds of pieces and then be easily ingested by scavenging animals or incorporated into meat processed for human consumption. A 2013 University of California study found that lead-based ammunition substantially increases environmental lead levels, especially in areas of concentrated shooting activity.

Jonathan Evans, environmental health legal director and senior attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, argues there are safer, more cost-effective options on store shelves today. Switching to non-lead ammunition, he says, is a minor cost increase for hunters and fishers when you take into effect other expenses associated with the activities, such as transportation.

Supporters of California's statewide lead ban hope other states will also take action to reduce their perceived threat. "If this wasn't such a politically charged issue," Evans says, "we would have phased out lead years ago."

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