Do Lead Bullets Kill Twice? Inside the Fight Over How Ammunition Is Made

The gun lobby argues that banning lead in ammunition is an unfair attack on outdoors types. Image Ideas/Stockbyte/Getty

California is leading the fight to get the lead out: It will soon become the first state in the U.S. to completely ban hunting with lead bullets. The hope is to save condors and other animals that feed on carcasses and then get lead poisoning.

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 made with a lead component, according to the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), the trade association for the firearms and ammunition industry. Some states have limited the use of lead ammunition in areas where hunters pursue quail, pheasants, grouse and other birds, while others have restricted the use of lead fishing weights and hooks. New Hampshire, for example, 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. In California, legislators passed a bill in 2013 seeking less-toxic alternatives for hunting, like copper or steel. The full ban takes effect in 2019.

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The battle over lead began more than 25 years ago. In 1991, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) banned it in ammunition used to hunt water birds, 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 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.

In 2008, state officials 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. State officials in both Arizona and Utah implemented voluntary nonlead ammunition programs by supplying hunters with alternative bullets if they hunt in condor territory, after studies found that lead poisoning was a leading cause of death in California condors.

Obama Order Revoked

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. The FWS director signed an order on January 19 that called for a phaseout by 2022 of the use of toxic lead on federal lands, such as national parks and wildlife refuges. But just 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 NSSF, had called for the Trump administration to immediately reverse the order.

Gun rights advocates and hunting groups criticized the 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, including 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."

At the state level, many were upset—and even offended—that the Obama administration took top-down action without consulting local authorities across the country, and thus breached a long tradition, says Greg Sheehan, director of the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources and chairman of the Lead and Fish and Wildlife Health Working Group. 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 at local habitats and to search 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.'"

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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 order. 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. 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 saw 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. Research has 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 that there are safer, more cost-effective options on store shelves today. Switching to nonlead ammunition, he says, is a minor cost increase for hunters and fishers when you take into account 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 the threat. "If this wasn't such a politically charged issue," Evans says, "we would have phased out lead years ago."