Reader Rory Bagley writes:
As people have become more aware of the negative health and environmental impactsof lead bullets, there is more and more caution when using these types of bullets. While more states move to ban the use of lead, alternative bullet materials are gaining in popularity.
Yet, despite the growing acceptance of alternatives, some hunters feel lead bans violate their rights. What’s the deal with these alternatives, and are they truly necessary?
How Do Non-Lead Bullets Compare to Lead Bullets?
There are primarily two types of lead alternatives for bullets on the market. One has a 100% copper core and the other is a copper mix (95% copper and 5% zinc).
Although some argue that banning lead bullets will ruin hunting, copper bullets are just as effective, if not superior to lead bullets. Copper bullets, though, are more expensive. However, as more bullet manufacturers produce non-lead alternatives, these safer projectiles will be more readily available and therefore more affordable.
The bullet expands rapidly, providing the hydrostatic shock necessary for quick kills. Unlike lead bullets, copper bullets don’t break apart and release the toxic dust that lead-based bullets do. Non-lead bullets are able to travel farther through the target, thus increasing stopping power because the bullet can more easily penetrate tissue and bone.
In addition, non-lead bullets usually pass completely through the animal, leaving an exit wound twice the diameter of the round’s size. This may offer a benefit for hunters, as the resulting increased blood loss may leave a better trail for hunters.
The Problem With Using Lead Bullets
Lead is a neurotoxin which negatively impacts both humans and animals. It also pollutes the environment, contaminating water and plants.
People can come in contact with lead in many different ways, and one preventable way is from using lead bullets when shooting or hunting. Overexposure to lead can cause heart problems, kidney failure and reproductive issues.
The effects are worse for pregnant women and children, since lead overexposure can damage a developing fetus or cause premature birth.
The Centers for Disease Control say there is no safe blood lead level for children. This is because children are still growing and developing, making them more sensitive to the effects of lead. Overexposure to lead causes
Animals can suffer from lead poisoning just like humans. The toxin affects animals in a similar way, by attacking their central nervous systems.
Humans may also come into contact with lead if they eat game or livestock that was poisoned by lead. The CDC tested 736 people who ate wild game, and found that 50% had higher lead levels in their blood than those who don’t eat wild game.
Lead also pollutes our environment. It contaminates water and affects plants. Soil pH, plant type, and the amount of lead are some of the factors that determine lead uptake in plants, although it varies quite a bit. For example, the edible portions of cabbage could have up to 16 parts per million of lead.
If lead is at high enough concentrations to pollute plants, it could potentially poison animals and humans by spreading through rainwater runoff. Rain runoff spreads lead from contaminated soil to rivers and bodies of water. It also can spread to groundwater sources. If that happens, lead is in the drinking water causing greater exposure risk to people and animals in the area.
Non-Life-Threatening Downsides to Using Lead Bullets
Besides the negative health and environmental effects of using lead bullets, there are negative impacts for range owners.
Indoor and outdoor range owners have their own guidelines to follow when it comes to lead contamination. If ranges are non-compliant, they risk fines, lawsuits or possible closure. Even with strong guidelines and necessary training and procedures, lead management is difficult and costly.
Outdoor ranges must register with and follow Environmental Protect Agency (EPA) rules, since spent lead bullets are considered hazardous waste. These types of ranges are subject to the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act and Clean Water Act, since lead can contaminate water sources.
Both indoor and outdoor ranges have to follow Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) rules, if they are operating with employees. Indoor ranges have to use expensive HVAC systems to be in line with OSHA rules for their employees. There needs to be an HVAC system in each stall and it costs around $25,000 per stall.
Both types of ranges have to find safe methods of bullet collection – often consisting of bullet traps – and disposal. Spent bullets are hazardous waste, so removal isn’t simple. Owners must find special facilities that will either pay for lead waste treatment or have the appropriate means to dispose of it.
Benefits to Using Non-Lead Bullets
Non-lead alternative bullets have some key advantages for gun ranges:
– No risk of fines for non-compliance
– No OSHA and EPA guidelines to worry about
– Less negative environmental impact
– Less expensive HVAC systems
– No risk of lead poisoning
The Argument of Lead-Based vs. Non-Lead Bullets
The first to mine lead were the Romans who used it in their slingshots. People used lead almost exclusively for ammo from then on until recent decades, with the increased awareness about the health and safety risks of lead exposure.
The National Shooting Sports Foundation calls lead bullets “traditional.” They argue that lead bullet bans are infringe on hunting rights, and merely creating a way to have stricter control on guns. Despite multiple studies on wildlife, the NSSF also claims there is no scientific evidence traditional ammo affects wildlife populations. They go on to say that it would actually hurt conservation efforts to ban lead ammo. NSSF argues less people will hunt, causing the wildlife parks to lose money that could go toward conservation efforts.
Bullets make up a relatively small portion of the cost to hunt. This is especially true for big game hunters, since they use few bullets. The average big game hunter spends over $1,400 per year to hunt. Copper lead bullets cost about $24, which is around 2% of the $1,400 hunting cost. A single box will last multiple seasons in big game hunting, since only a couple of bullets are used each season. The cost difference is even smaller if hunters are currently using higher-quality lead bullets. A high-quality set of lead bullets costs around $20. This is only a $4 dollar difference from the safer, non-lead alternative.
Furthermore, people will still hunt using lead alternatives. In fact, 80-90% of Arizona’s hunters use non-lead bullets voluntarily in areas with endangered California condors.
The U.S. Military is currently using lead alternatives they call “green” bullets. A few years ago, after rigorous testing, they began phasing out lead bullets and plan to be lead free by 2018. Soldiers can’t be on the frontlines using ineffective bullets with so many lives at stake. After testing, the green bullets were even more lethal than lead bullets. Furthermore, non-lead supporters argue that if the bullets are good enough for the military, hunters should use them.
The Ban on Lead Bullets
There have been moves to ban lead bullets on state and federal levels. Most notably, one of the Obama Administration’s last acts was to attempt a ban on the use of lead bullets. Shortly before leaving office, Obama expanded federal rules on lead bullets. Effective immediately in his last week in office, the ban tried to protect fish and wildlife from lead poisoning. The ban covered all federal lands, and all hunters would need to be compliant by 2022.
However, the federal ban was brief. On March 2, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke repealed the lead bullet ban. It was Zinke’s first action as secretary.
Under federal law, hunters can’t currently use lead ammunition when hunting for waterfowl or while hunting in refuges and areas with waterfowl, based on evidence that it is toxic to waterfowl.
In addition, at least 30 states have their own rules regarding lead ammo. For instance, the range of the California condor bans lead ammo currently. The state of California plans to ban lead ammo on all grounds by 2019.
Despite the repeal of the federal ban, states continue to manage lead bullets in state parks increasingly. For a full list of state rules, follow this link.