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Gunning for Lead Bullets

Hunters using lead ammunition leave a potent neurotoxin scattered in the outdoors; alternative ammunition is really good. Why are efforts to ban lead ammunition so difficult?
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We’ve been keeping a sort of barrel’s-length view of bullets and efforts to fill them full of something other than lead for some time. The quick recap is that yes, while bullets are intended to kill, that doesn't stop a second or two after pulling the trigger. Both when bullets miss or when they do kill and either nobody retrieves the carcass or leaves a steaming pile of guts, that leaves a powerful neurotoxin in the environment.

In hunting areas, the concern is that non-game species, like California condors or trumpeter swans, will get a gullet-full of lead and poison themselves. On the battlefield, the fear is that lots of spent rounds will eventually poison the groundwater (a much-too-slow way to get rid of the enemy, I guess). There are other non-poisonous things that you can make a first-class bullet out of, such as copper, and ammunition made of these materials is readily available.

Last week California became the first state in the nation to forbid using lead bullets for all forms of hunting. The law, which doesn’t take effect until 2019, offers a series of fines up to $5,000 for those caught using leaded ammunition to take any kind of wildlife, game or non-game—like the coyote running down the road with Fluffy in its mouth.

When the bird hunters shifted from lead to stainless steel pellets in their shotgun shells, the lighter and tighter steel (sometimes literally) made a hash of what they were aiming at.

Some gun advocates see the legislation as catastrophic—Andy Vidak, a Republican state senator from my old home of Hanford, opined that “Gov. [Jerry] Brown's all-out assault on our 2nd Amendment rights is outrageous” and the legislation is “anti-hunting, plain and simple.” (Not all the people unhappy about the new law are so rabid; here’s a more reasonable, if no less loving, critique.) But the new law is part of a trend to get the lead out, whether in gasoline, paint, or rifles.

Thanks to then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, it’s been against the law to use lead ammunition for hunting big game in California condor habitat since 2008. Since 1991, it’s been federal law that you can’t use lead shot in blasting at waterfowl (hunters adapted somehow), and 30 states have some type of restriction on when and where you can use lead bullets.

As Vidak illustrates, a lot of people see any kind of restriction as an end run for gun control. In Democratic-majority California, with a strong recent tradition of enacting gun laws, there's some sensitivity to gun owners. Following concerns that the feds might ban “armor piercing” bullets and include all non-lead ammo in the definition, the California law allows the Director of Fish and Game to temporarily allow lead bullets if that happens.

Less political issues like cost and performance may matter more in the public acceptance of lead-free bullets. Non-lead ammo does cost more than traditional ammo (unless you’re already using the premium factory-loaded stuff). The California law offers a plan to reimburse part or even all of a consumer's costs for switching to unleaded, but it’s contingent, ahem, “to the extent that funding is available.”

There are performance differences in alternative ammos. When the bird hunters shifted from lead to stainless steel pellets in their shotgun shells, the lighter and tighter steel (sometimes literally) made a hash of what they were aiming at. With experience, and the marketing of tungsten and bismuth pellets alongside steel, most learned to at least tolerate steel shot.

New-look rounds might even be an upgrade. Last year, copper VOR-TX bullets won the American Hunter Ammunition Product of the Year Golden Bullseye Award from the NRA Publications. Despite that honor, the winning manufacturer, Barnes Bullets, opposes banning lead. The company acknowledges that after 30 years of making copper bullets, starting well before longstanding concerns about lead had translated into policy, they've found that copper bullets "deliver the best terminal performance on game” (although it's hard on the manufacturing tools). And yet, "Barnes has not funded or supported efforts to further the advancement of any lead ban, nor will we ever."

What about the biggest user of bullets in the U.S., the military? The Pentagon really likes its existing green bullets; “It’s providing great lethality for our soldiers and our squads on the ground,” Lt. Gen. William Phillips told the House earlier this year. Such things tend to matter when someone’s shooting back. A larger-caliber version, for weapons like the M14, is expected to go live next year—and may even be a better bullet all-around.