“Eyes and ears,” Leland Brown calls out. “We’re going hot!” We pull on our safety glasses and earmuffs, though neither prevents the concussive blast to our chests as Jeff Yanke pulls the trigger of his Ruger M77 rifle, sending a bullet coursing towards the back end of a 50-gallon rain barrel.
“We never discuss what happens to the other 20 to 30 percent of the lead bullet,” says Brown. “Where does that end up?”
The white plastic drum, flanked by a menagerie of more traditional steel targets depicting a coyote, a chicken, and a pig, rests horizontally on a wooden cradle 100 yards downrange. A round hole is cut into its bottom, which faces Yanke, and inside the barrel are five plastic, one-gallon jugs. Each jug is filled with water and arranged in a line, front to back, ready to absorb the incoming round — a crude but effective enough proxy for the dense hide of a game animal.
Yanke reloads and resights his rifle, then fires a second bullet into the hole at the bottom of a neighboring barrel. Another puff of gunpowder fills the air, and the experiment is over.
With assurance that the range is now “cold,” we drop our protective gear and step out from under the range’s shaded firing line into the mid-August sun. The Blue Mountains rise to the right, just beyond the earthen mound backstopping the targets. We hike towards the barrels and, reaching the first, Brown’s team begins extracting twisted and torn water jugs. All five are destroyed, and Yanke eventually retrieves the blunted piece of metal responsible for their demise.
“This is textbook,” says Brown, a biologist and non-lead hunting education coordinator with the Oregon Zoo. He’s here at the Eagle Cap Shooters Association in Enterprise, Oregon to demonstrate the differences between ammunition made of lead and those made from other materials. He nods through his trimmed beard to the spent ammunition that Yanke, a member here and a biologist with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, now holds in his hand — and to the remnants of water jugs strewn on the ground. The point of the bullet is split and splayed like flower petals, but it remains mostly intact.
In the other barrel, the men find a vastly different scenario. Only two of the five jugs have been fully penetrated by the bullet, which has broken into fragments that now litter the inside of the barrel. The largest remnant of the spent slug resembles a sautéed mushroom, and a scale confirms what is visibly apparent: While the first bullet, made entirely of copper, retained 99 percent of its original weight, the second bullet, comprised of lead, broke into pieces, losing a quarter of its weight when it hit the jugs. “We never discuss what happens to the other 20 to 30 percent of the lead bullet,” says Brown. “Where does that end up?”
Yanke proposes an answer: “That shit was in my cheeseburger last night.”
Whether any particles of lead — a well-known neurotoxin when ingested in sufficient quantities — actually tainted Yanke’s elk burger is impossible to know. Some scientific studies do point to a chance of contamination when wild game is taken with lead ammunition, and Yanke did take down an elk last hunting season with a lead bullet. As hunters do, he’d also left a portion of the animal’s innards behind in the field.
What’s clear is that previous field analyses have shown that hundreds of lead fragments — one study counted a total of 738 — can extend as far as 18 inches from a lead bullet’s path through an animal, well outside the range where hunters typically trim. Scientists have also warned that lead in those discarded gut piles can poison eagles and other wildlife that seek them out for food — but the concerns surrounding lead ammunition aren’t limited to hunting. Lead bullets used in target shooting by military personnel, law enforcement officers, and the public, has been found to pollute soil and water around some outdoor shooting ranges, as well as the air and surfaces of indoor ranges when not properly cleaned or ventilated.
The continued use of lead in ammunition, environmental and public health advocates say, remains an under-appreciated and preventable source of exposure to the toxic heavy metal for millions of Americans. They argue that the evidence of real and negative impacts is so overwhelming, in fact, that the lack of more aggressive regulation borders on the absurd, if not downright negligent. “A good bullet should not kill twice,” said Carrol Henderson, a hunter and an educator with the Department of Natural Resources in Minnesota.
“A good bullet should not kill twice,” said Carrol Henderson, a hunter and an educator with the Department of Natural Resources in Minnesota.
Indeed, despite substantial scientific evidence linking the use of lead ammunition to a host of environmental and public health threats, roughly 90 percent of the 10 billion rounds purchased every year in the United States still contain lead. Until recently, the only federal regulation regarding lead ammunition requires lead-free shotgun pellets for the hunting of waterfowl. That changed on the final day of Barack Obama’s presidential term, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued a decree that would phase out the use of lead ammunition (and some fishing tackle) on federal lands. The last-minute move was immediately blasted by the firearms and shooting sports industries, which hope to see the decree quickly overturned under the presidency of Donald J. Trump. Given Trump’s courtship of both industries during his campaign, it seems likely they will get their wish.
At the state level, meanwhile, roughly 30 states have implemented, and more are currently considering, additional lead ammunition restrictions — including a fiercely debated measure in Henderson’s state, which would prohibit the use of lead ammunition for bird hunting on state lands.
But public health advocates like Dr. Michael Kosnett, an environmental toxicologist at the University of Colorado, Denver, suggest that these halting measures are nowhere near enough. Kosnett was among 30 doctors and scientists who co-authored a consensus statement in 2013 on the health risks of lead-based ammunition. “We still drive cars. We still paint houses,” Kosnett told me, referring to the removal of lead from gasoline and house paint in the U.S. during the 1970s. “There are substitutes for lead in ammunition, too. If there’s a feasible way to avoid the risk by product substitution, then why not do that?”
The answers to that question are complex in their details, but simple enough from the broadest view: As with other public health and environmental threats, from smoking to climate change, many people remain unconvinced that risks from lead ammunition are real — and the firearms industry has played an outsized role in sowing doubt about the science. The greater threat, they argue, is to Americans’ freedom to hunt and own firearms, and the industry spends lavishly to peddle this viewpoint.
When debate over a state ban on lead ammunition heated up in California, for example, the firearms industry upped its spending, and founded the non-profit Hunt for Truth Association.
“[G]roups attempting to ban the use of lead ammunition base their claims on faulty science,” a coalition of firearm industry partners, including the National Rifle Association and the National Shooting Sports Foundation, declares at HuntForTruth.org, an industry-supported website. The site assiduously catalogs — and seeks to debunk — many of the key scientific arguments against the continued use of lead bullets, calling into question researchers’ methodologies and their own inherent biases. The Hunt for Truth Association, which publishes the website, says that its members will “remain vigilant in their desire to maintain the use of lead ammunition while continuing to preserve America’s ‘traditional hunting heritage.’”
The Hunt for Truth Association seeks to “maintain the use of lead ammunition while continuing to preserve America’s traditional hunting heritage.”
Among other criticisms, the NSSF — the gun industry’s largest trade group — maintains that copper and other alternative ammunition simply performs poorly compared to lead, which the group prefers to call “traditional ammunition.” It also carries a higher price tag — and these differences, lead-ammo advocates say, could prove to be very costly to conservation. After all, if non-lead bullets cost more but are less effective, fewer people will ultimately choose to hunt, the NSSF says — and that would result in fewer dollars spent on firearms, ammunition, and, most importantly, licenses and tag fees, a portion of which funds projects to protect the environment and wildlife.
“It’s actually the animals that groups supporting a ban purport to want to help that would be the ones who suffer the most,” said Lawrence Keane, senior vice president of the NSSF.
Given the broad influence of industry and the entrenched views it cultivates, it’s little wonder that confusion and distrust permeate groups of hunters and others who fire guns at Eagle Cap. Bob Jones, an active member who hosts big-bore matches at the range, admitted some initial worries when he agreed to the demonstration on that sunny Saturday, during which Brown allowed local hunters to freely test out an assortment of copper ammunition in their rifles. It was the first time anyone had fired copper on his range.
“Guys here fear their guns are going to be taken away,” says Jones. “I didn’t know how they’d like it.”
Six hundred miles southeast of Enterprise, antler archways decorate the four corners of the town square in Jackson, Wyoming. To say hunting is popular here would be a sublime understatement. Native Americans frequented the local valley, today known as Jackson Hole, centuries ago to hunt large game. Europeans and Americans later followed, and it remains a top tourist attraction today.
Until recently, just about every bullet fired into a buffalo, deer or elk here was made of lead.
The origins of lead ammunition date back thousands of years, to well before guns themselves. The Greeks and Romans shot lead balls from slingshots. Widely available, soft and malleable, lead continued to be the easy choice when people began forming musket balls. And as firearm technology evolved, so did the shape of bullets, some eventually stretching into the streamlined projectiles that now spin out of rifle barrels. Then, with the discovery that these lead bullets tended to leave traces of themselves inside the rifle after each firing, metal jackets arrived. Variations of jacketed ammunition — typically a harder metal such as copper encasing a soft lead core — are among the most popular bullets used today.
Those same Greeks who made some of the first lead ammunition may have also been the first to recognize the heavy metal as toxic. In 250 BC, Greek philosopher Nikander of Colophon reported on colic and anemia that resulted from lead poisoning. The anecdotal evidence would mount — Benjamin Franklin contributed in the 1700s by noting lead’s “mischievous” effects on workers — and eventually turn to more concrete science in the late 19th century. Still, it took until the latter half of the 20th century before the U.S. government began to heed the warnings with a phase-out of lead from gasoline, plumbing and most paints. Lingering lead in old pipes and peeling paint still poses profound health risks, of course, as demonstrated recently in Flint, Michigan.
“Once you learn about it, it makes sense. Of course you shouldn’t be using lead.”
Meanwhile, lead used in ammunition has largely escaped serious scrutiny. “The vast majority of people don’t even know about it or think it’s an issue,” says Bryan Bedrosian, a senior avian ecologist at the Teton Raptor Center in Wilson, just outside of Jackson. “But once you learn about it, it makes sense. Of course you shouldn’t be using lead.”
At a picnic table next to a red barn where center staff cares for sick and injured raptors, Bedrosian describes his research on the impacts of lead ammunition on birds of prey. In 2004, while working at Craighead Beringia South, a wildlife research and education institute in nearby Kelly, Wyoming, he’d started collecting blood samples from ravens. Nearly half of those he tested during hunting season had lead levels above 10 micrograms per deciliter, while just 2 percent had similarly elevated levels in the off-season. (For reference, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now considers a child lead-poisoned if his or her blood lead level reaches or exceeds 5 micrograms per deciliter.)
“At the start of hunting season we saw a spike everywhere. You couldn’t make up data any better if you wanted to,” says Bedrosian, who is wearing a t-shirt with an image of an owl, another raptor.
“At the start of hunting season we saw a spike everywhere. You couldn’t make up data any better if you wanted to.”
Bedrosian moved on to eagles a few years later and uncovered the same “super clear picture,” he says. Nearly a quarter of eagles his team tested during hunting seasons had lead levels above 60 micrograms per deciliter, while no blood samples from birds surpassed that threshold during the non-hunting seasons.
These seasonal connections, coupled with counting hundreds of visible lead fragments in x-rays of gut piles, convinced Bedrosian to do something. With funding from environmental groups like 1% for the Tetons, he helped launch a program to provide free and discounted copper ammunition to local hunters. The effort seemed to pay off. “The more hunters that used copper bullets,” recalls Bedrosian, “the less lead we found in eagles.”
Weakness, lethargy, weight loss, a drooping head and tattered wings are among the recognizable signs of lead poisoning in an eagle, says Meghan Warren, the rehabilitation and volunteer coordinator at the center, sitting next to Bedrosian at the picnic table. “They act really depressed,” she adds. “The tips of their wings might be coated in green goop from diarrhea that dribbles out. It’s really terrible.” The two note having seen blood lead levels as high as 728 micrograms per deciliter in birds brought to the center.
Still, identifying lead poisoning in a wild animal is not always so straightforward. The effects can be hidden, indirect and subtle. Birds don’t go to the hospital when they’re feeling sick. And finding a dead one is rare. “If they are not scavenged upon, a bird tends to find a quiet, dark place to hide and die,” says Bedrosian.
Warren notes that birds will often arrive at the center, not with obvious symptoms of poisoning, but with injuries that may have resulted from a lead-induced lack of coordination. They might run into a wind turbine, a power line or a car. “Or maybe they’re not coordinated enough to catch fish and starve,” adds Bedrosian. “What comes in as the proximate cause is not necessarily the ultimate cause.”
Even more subtly, lead exposure may trigger an “artificial selection process” in birds, explained Julia Ponder, executive director of The Raptor Center at the University of Minnesota. Survival of the fittest could be reversed, since the fittest birds — who would typically be the strongest breeders — also tend to be the first to feed on a gut pile.
The NSSF takes issue with the methodology used in the majority of studies on the topic, stating that most researchers test and extrapolate from raptors found dead or treated in a rehabilitation center. (Of note, Bedrosian’s research with eagles focused on wild, free-flying birds.) The gun group prefers the findings of a 2014 master’s thesis out of Iowa State University, in which a student tested lead levels in fecal samples taken from nesting bald eagles and reported that few birds appeared to have been exposed to “high levels of lead.”
“The Iowa study finally takes a meaningful look at the anti-hunting groups’ argument that traditional ammunition poses a threat to populations,” the NSSF said in a statement.
That thesis has resulted in one peer-reviewed study, which looked at lead levels measured in the feces and blood of birds at a rehabilitation center and concluded that the feces test, which is non-invasive, could be a valuable research tool. The follow-up study did not, however, discuss the conclusions and interpretations from the Iowa master’s thesis that are underscored by the NSSF — findings that both Ponder and Bedrosian suggested were of little surprise, given that the student’s samples were taken outside of hunting season, and from birds healthy enough to nest.
“There is a lot of misinformation out there,” Merchant said. “The calls that there is ‘no science’ are not coming from the scientific community.”
Steve Merchant, wildlife population and regulation program manager with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, conceded the NSSF’s point that no one can definitively say whether any species would be more abundant if lead ammunition was banned. But such a lack of proof comes with the territory in science: An absence of evidence, as scientists say, does not prove evidence of absence. “Have we experimentally designed a study where lead ammunition is banned in half the state and not the other half, and then found populations growing in the area we’ve banned lead? No,” he said, noting such a study is not feasible. “But there is certainly a wide body of evidence that shows that birds at an individual level are dying because of the ingestion of this.”
The firearms industry frequently raises another point: Lead fragments in game meat are in a “metallic form” and are, therefore, less toxic than other sources of lead. Advocates again call this misleading. “Metallic lead, in a bullet or piece of bullet fragment, is not at that point toxic,” said Vernon Thomas, a professor emeritus at the University of Guelph in Ontario, who’s written widely on the topic. “It only becomes toxic when solubilized and absorbed in the blood of an animal.”
“There is a lot of misinformation out there,” added Merchant. “The calls that there is no science are not coming from the scientific community.”
Minnesota, again, is among a number of jurisdictions looking to go further than the 1991 federal waterfowl rule. Due in part to the work of Bedrosian, Grand Teton National Park now bans lead ammunition for hunting elk within its boundaries. And in responding to challenges in the recovery of the endangered California condor, for which lead has been deemed the leading cause of death, Arizona and California have implemented voluntary and mandatory bans, respectively. By July 1, 2019, non-lead ammunition will be required for all hunting in California.
NSSF’s Keane criticized the California move as being driven by “anti-hunting” groups and lacking in “sound science demonstrating that there was a population impact caused by use of traditional ammunition.” While the group acknowledges that some sick condors have been found with elevated blood lead levels, they reject claims that lead ammunition deserves any broad blame. In at least one case, they point out, condors were observed eating lead paint chips off an old fire tower. The group is also critical of isotope studies that have traced lead detected in condors to the type of lead used in ammunition. The last primary lead smelting plant in the U.S. closed its doors in 2013, leaving recycled lead the form most often used by ammunition makers. What a hunter shoots into a deer today may well have been in his truck battery last year. And that fact, the NSSF notes, could have skewed study results.
Spent lead ammunition is the “most frequent cause of lead exposure and poisoning in scavenging birds,” the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service concluded.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service acknowledged that there are multiple sources of lead in the environment in its review of the issue published in 2016. Still, the service cited “numerous lines of evidence” — from the recovery of ingested lead fragments from exposed birds, to observations of birds feeding on contaminated carcasses and increased death rates during hunting seasons — in its conclusion that spent lead ammunition is the “most frequent cause of lead exposure and poisoning in scavenging birds.”
Christine Kreuder Johnson, a professor of epidemiology at the University of California, Davis School of Veterinary Medicine authored a separate review of the topic in 2014. She suggested we know more than enough about the threats to scavenging birds from lead ammunition to be taking action — and not just for the birds’ sake. “Lead affects all species in the same way,” she said. “Wildlife in general is going to be very heavily exposed to the same things people are exposed to. When we finally detect problems in wildlife, we really need to pay attention.”
It was a conversation with Bedrosian shortly after the birth of his daughter, Avery, which convinced Kevin Taylor to switch from lead to copper in his rifle. “To knowingly feed her elk meat that has the potential to contain lead fragments is an absolute no brainer,” says Taylor.
Up a steep and windy gravel road a few miles from the raptor center, I find Taylor, a botanist and wildlife expedition guide in Jackson, Wyoming, erecting a new fence to protect his chickens from predators. Like Yanke, nearly all of the meat Taylor’s family consumes comes from the one elk he takes every fall, not far from their home perched near the Tetons. And they eat just about every part of the elk — edible internal organs and all. “That’s our protein source,” he says, his blue eyes piercing out from between his tan hat and bushy red beard. “Well, in addition to the eggs from our chickens.”
Lead exposure from wild game is a real risk. A study of North Dakotans, published in 2009 by the CDC and the North Dakota Department of Health, found that as wild game consumption increased, so did blood lead levels. The authors wrote that their findings had important implications for hunters and their families, as well as low-income families. (Sportsmen Against Hunger and other programs donate game meat to local food pantries.) The NSSF, however, categorized the research as among “plenty of junk studies that make headlines.” They noted that the difference in blood lead levels between participants who ate wild game harvested with traditional ammunition and non-hunters, after adjusting for other factors such as exposure to house paint, was a mere 0.3 micrograms per deciliter. “There is certainly no evidence at all that there is a risk to human health by consuming game harvested with traditional ammunition,” said Keane.
Because the study was conducted four to five months after hunting season and included few children, who tend to absorb more lead than adults, the study authors suggested that the results might downplay the true extent of exposure. The study did find that more recent consumption of wild game — and greater consumption of wild game — led to higher blood lead levels. And while the average blood lead level in the exposed group was relatively low at 1.27 micrograms per deciliter, the authors noted that it was still “orders of magnitude higher than the levels of preindustrial human societies.”
The CDC has warned that there is no safe level of lead in the blood of children. And, as in animals, the effects of lead on people may range from subtle to severe. Exposure even under the current CDC reference level of 5 micrograms per deciliter, studies say, may leave a developing child a little slower to learn, a little shorter of attention, a little less successful on tests and at work, and a little more likely to engage in criminal activity. (Recent reports suggest the agency is now considering further lowering this threshold to 3.5 micrograms per deciliter.)
Evidence is also emerging of lead’s role in reproductive disorders, kidney disease, cognitive decline and neurological problems.
Adults are also far from immune to lead and its health effects. Studies hint that chronic blood lead levels as low as 2 micrograms per deciliter may increase the risk of death from a heart attack or stroke. Evidence is also emerging of lead’s role in reproductive disorders, kidney disease, cognitive decline and neurological problems. Lead is damaging, in part, because it mimics the calcium essential in maintaining healthy bones, nerve cells and blood pressure. More than 90 percent of lead in adults is stored in bones, where the metal’s trickery has helped it claim spots generally reserved for calcium. And that squatting lead is prone to leaching out at inopportune times. It can, for example, take the same ride into the womb as the calcium naturally released from a pregnant woman’s bones to nourish her growing fetus.
In addition to potential exposure from eating contaminated meat, workers and customers at a shooting range may inhale, ingest or absorb lead while loading ammunition, shooting, retrieving spent bullets and cleaning guns. The U.S. is home to more than 2,500 ranges and, every year, at least 20 million Americans participate in recreational shooting, according to the NSSF. Reports suggest the figure is increasing, with shooting growing in popularity among women and children.
Between 2001 and 2013, the number of women target shooters rose from 3.3 million to 5.4 million, according to the NSSF. Meanwhile, the firearms industry has targeted children in an effort to ensure the future of shooting sports, according to a 2013 analysis by The New York Times and a 2016 study by the Violence Policy Center. Some ranges even offer birthday party packages.
“Inhaling lead particles at a shooting range can raise a person’s blood lead levels very quickly.”
Depending on the type of gun used, the heavy metal can be released through the fragmentation or vaporization of the bullet and from the lead used as the primer or propellant. Experts agree that these risks can be controlled with proper ventilation along with personal precautions. After using an indoor or outdoor range, for example, workers and customers should wash their hands thoroughly with soap and cold water. (Warm water can actually open up the pores for more absorption of lead.) And when returning home from the range, they should immediately remove their shoes and clothing, and wash their hair.
Problem is, things can go — and have gone — wrong, with tragic consequences, as The Seattle Times highlighted in their series, Loaded with Lead. Sometimes range owners disregard certain rules and regulations. Other times, ignorance or simply bad luck is to blame for toxic exposures.
Health experts express great concern for members of the military and law enforcement, who probably spend more time than anyone at gun ranges. The U.S. Department of Defense stated that while it has fully converted 5.56-millimeter war reserve cartridges (fired from the M16 rifle) to lead-free, their training rounds remain a mix of lead and non-lead. “The U.S. Army operations office (G-3) is tracking that and ensuring there is a timeline and flow that allows us to transition as soon as feasible,” the DoD said in a statement.
The FBI also continues to use only lead bullets in its training, noted Kurt Crawford of the FBI Academy. In special situations, such as for a pregnant agent, the bureau does allow a reduced lead propellant.
Other range regulars at risk include the nation’s hundreds of thousands of police officers, noted Howard Mielke, an expert in lead poisoning at Tulane University School of Medicine. “I can just imagine that some of the people in law enforcement are really conscientious about making sure they are good at handling a firearm,” he said, suggesting this translates to a lot of time at the firing range. “And that could severely expose them to lead, to the point that it may trigger them to get very nervous — rather than relaxed and calm — in a setting where they feel threatened.” Studies published in 2009 and 2016 suggest that lead exposure from shooting may decrease verbal memory and increase the frequency of neuropsychiatric symptoms.
“Inhaling lead particles at a shooting range can raise a person’s blood lead levels very quickly,” added Mielke.
That’s just what happened to Amy Crawford. In 2008, while training as a law enforcement officer in Kirkland, Washington, the ventilation system at an indoor firing range failed. Her squad continued shooting. “I couldn’t see an arm’s length in front of me,” recalled Crawford. “But we were just using the haze like a tool. Like, if you can’t see in real life, how do you address the situation?”
Crawford and her colleagues had not been taught about lead and its dangers. They coughed and itched their eyes through the training, then woke up the next day with flu-like symptoms and a metallic taste in their mouths. When the officers went for testing, Crawford’s blood lead level came back the highest at 33 micrograms per deciliter.
While Crawford said she feels fine today, she worries about the future. “I don’t know what the repercussions are going to be,” she said. “Obviously, I’m worried about having children.”
The Kirkland Police Department recently opened a lead-free shooting range, the first of its kind in the state. And although she has since left the force, Crawford praised the move. “I do not want this to happen to anyone else,” she said. “It’s totally preventable.”
A similar rationale led Taylor to his decision to hunt with copper bullets, and to share what he’s learned about lead bullets with others. “One of my mantras is, ‘Control the things you can control in life,'” he said. “There are a lot of other things we can’t control.”
“It’s hard to kill animals,” says Taylor. “No one wants an animal to die slowly.”
After introducing me to Butterscotch, Buttercup and the rest of his flock, Taylor leads me out of the chicken run and into his home. He pulls a bowl of homegrown raspberries out of his refrigerator and a warped piece of metal off a shelf next to his front door. This copper bullet, he tells me, came out of an elk he shot in the nearby Gros Ventre Wilderness. He keeps it handy for show-and-tell opportunities like this one.
Taylor directs my attention to the girth of the spent copper round, which looks nearly identical to the flower-like Nosler E-Tip copper bullet Yanke held in his hand in Enterprise. The wider the path through the animal, he explains, the more damage and trauma the bullet generates, and the faster the animal dies. That elk he shot in Gros Ventre had dropped quickly.
“It’s hard to kill animals,” says Taylor, his eyes not hiding the fact that he still hasn’t recovered from sacrificing several of his older chickens over the previous few days. “No one wants an animal to die slowly.”
Lead ammunition, including the Federal Premium Ammunition’s Power-Shok soft point that Yanke shot into the other rain barrel, naturally smooshes like the cap of a mushroom when it strikes. A copper bullet is simply designed to mimic that mutation by opening up into petals upon impact.
Travis Ryan, a spokesperson for Barnes Bullets, noted that this engineering has improved significantly since his company created their first prototype copper bullet in the early 1980s. Now, the diameter of their bullet at least doubles when it hits its target, while maintaining enough energy to penetrate deep into the animal.
The NRA awarded Barnes best hunter ammunition product of the year in 2012 for its copper bullets. Today, more than 40 U.S. companies manufacture or load non-lead bullets. Yet finding copper ammunition can still be difficult, in part because it is not yet available in all the shapes and sizes necessary to fit the extensive arsenal of guns in America. For some of these guns, experts agree that a transition to lead-free is less urgent. Shotgun and muzzle-loading bullets, for example, move slower and are, therefore, less prone to fragmentation. But plenty of speedier ammunitions remain limited to lead.
A lack of marketing may also keep some shoppers from finding and adopting the alternative ammunition. Take, for example, Barnes’ VOR-TX copper rifle bullets. Neither the front packaging of the box nor its listing on the outdoor sports store Cabela’s website make mention of it being “copper” or “lead-free”. The information does finally appear when you click on the item itself and scroll down to the fine print. What’s more, there is no way on Cabela’s website to search ammunition by material.
The biggest copper deterrent for those hunting for ammunition, according to the firearms industry, is that copper comes at a higher price than lead. As a material, it is more expensive, and its characteristics — hardness and melting points — require additional energy and tooling inputs, explained Ryan Bronson, conservation and public policy director for Federal Premium Ammunition.
While Bronson noted his company’s opposition to efforts to take away a hunter’s option to shoot with lead, Federal unveiled a new line of copper rifle ammunition last summer. A box of 20 rounds sells at Cabela’s for about $28 — within the price range of popular lead bullets. The product’s packaging also does include reference to “copper” — a sign that the situation may be improving, according to Henderson.
The lingering, but arguably shrinking gap in the availability of copper bullets helped motivate California’s slow phase-in of its ban, said Clark Blanchard, assistant deputy director of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Office of Communications, Education and Outreach. “We hope manufacturers will catch up and produce more of the stuff as we get close to 2019, and that prices will come down,” he said, noting that he switched to lead-free himself this year and discovered that the price tag for a box was comparable — about $24 for copper as opposed to the $20 he previously paid for lead.
“So far, we haven’t seen that people are going to give up hunting because they are required to use non-lead.”
Even with a price gap, advocates note that ammunition accounts for a small proportion of the overall cost of hunting, especially for big game hunters who may shoot only a couple bullets a year. A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service survey in 2011 found that the average big game hunter actually spends more than $1,400 per year to hunt, including transportation, food and lodging.
“So far, we haven’t seen that people are going to give up hunting because they are required to use non-lead,” said Blanchard. When California made non-lead mandatory in designated condor ranges in 2008, he noted that they didn’t see a drop in deer tags for the hunters most affected. In fact, he said, there might have been a “slight uptick.”
Joseph Neveau, of Enterprise, has hunted deer and elk since he was 12 years old. Now, at age 64, he owns more than 30 guns. “I use them all,” he says, leaning against his Ford truck parked in front of the Eagle Cap Gun Range. He’s wearing a plain grey t-shirt and blue jeans, and clutching his Remington rifle.
Until this hot August day, the only bullets Neveau had fired out of this or any of his other guns had been made of lead. But Neveau has just agreed to buy a box of copper ammunition. He wasn’t sold by the same potential environmental or health benefits that had helped persuade Taylor. Rather, it was simply the performance of the bullets — and the chance to win a lottery. Elk hunters who voluntarily hunted with non-lead ammunition on the Nature Conservancy’s Zumwalt Prairie Preserve in Oregon during the 2016 season were entered into a drawing for prizes totaling $2,000. The incentive program launched as a partnership between the Oregon Zoo, the Nature Conservancy, the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife, and the Oregon Hunters Association.
The mix of shooters who showed up at Eagle Cap — among them a couple men in environmental t-shirts and another wearing an NRA hat — may not have ordinarily rubbed shoulders. But Brown, a hunter himself, suggests that there’s no reason environmentalists and hunting rights advocates should be at odds when it comes to the question of adopting non-lead ammunition. “This effort is pro-hunting and pro-conservation,” says Brown. “It’s about how the hunting community can continue to be leaders in conservation.” Theodore Roosevelt wore both hats after all.
But a deeper look at those defending lead ammunition makes apparent this polarizing debate is also largely about politics and money. The gun industry warns a “slippery slope” of regulation on guns and ammunition will follow any bans on lead bullets. Meanwhile, the lead recycling industry has direct profits at stake. The Association of Battery Recyclers intervened on a case brought by environmental groups that sought to force the EPA to ban ammunition containing lead components. The U.S. District Court eventually dismissed the lawsuit, siding with the recycling group, the NRA and the NSSF.
The National Defense Authorization Act, signed into law in November of 2015 by President Barack Obama, includes several NRA-backed provisions including one that prohibits the EPA from banning lead ammunition under the Toxic Substances Control Act. The EPA confirmed that the TSCA reform bill passed earlier this year would not alter that lack of authority.
The industry appears to actively lobby on the issue at the state level as well. The NSSF’s spending in California, for example, spiked to more than $350,000 in 2013, according to data from the National Institute on Money in State Politics, while consistently staying below $50,000 during preceding and subsequent years. That same year, a coalition of gun rights groups formed the Hunt for Truth Association to “debunk the myths and misinformation about lead ammunition.” California Assembly Bill 711, the ruling that propels the state towards a lead ammunition ban, was among gun-related legislation approved by Democratic Governor Jerry Brown in October 2013.
Minnesota’s Henderson hinted at less direct methods that may also be used by industry to fend off regulations on lead ammunition. While all major U.S. ammunition manufacturers have begun making non-lead ammunition, he said, “The NRA hangs over their shoulders, daring them to promote their own products.”
“For a lot of people, the only exposure they get around this issue is from groups saying basically that the science is all junk,”
Henderson helped to organize a roundtable discussion on the transition from lead to copper ammunition last August in Minnesota. He noted that he had invited a representative from Hornady to share information on the company’s new line of non-lead bullets. And the representative agreed to attend. However, Henderson recalled hearing from him a few days before the meeting. “He called and apologized because one of his superiors told him he would be fired if he showed up at our meeting,” said Henderson. (Hornady did not respond to a request for comment on their GMX rifle ammunition or the meeting.)
The defense strategies — from battling back legislation to interjecting questions over the science to framing the issue as a threat to the Second Amendment — appeared familiar to David Rosner, co-director of the Center for the History & Ethics of Public Health at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. “So many of the tactics look just like what other portions of the lead industry did to confuse us about lead paint, pipes and smelters: Raise doubt about the ‘validity’ of the science and say we just need much more information,” said Rosner. “After that, the industry just said the information gathered was just not good enough because there are too many confounding factors and too many sources to blame our product.”
This playbook, perhaps drafted by lead paint manufacturers in the early 20th century, seems to have been revised and expanded over the decades by other industries that, too, have been forced on the defensive. Internal tobacco industry documents, for example, revealed how companies purposefully confused the public by manufacturing controversy. “Spread doubt over strong scientific evidence and the public won’t know what to believe,” one document advised. For decades, the industry continued to argue that there was no proof that cigarette smoking caused harmful effects and that the science purporting such hazards was shoddy or incomplete. They cherry-picked favorable studies and funded their own research to dispute links. The deceit and denial successfully delayed regulations. The flame retardant industry has reportedly enlisted similar tools to preserve its lucrative market when confronted by incriminating scientific studies and the threat of legislation.
A new study at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, is hoping to shed some light on individual hunters’ attitudes and beliefs with regard to lead bullets. John Organ, chief of the Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Units for the U.S. Geological Survey and the study’s lead investigator, says this would include an examination of where they get their information. “We are approaching this from an objective perspective — trying to understand what would influence hunter behavior and what would change hunter behavior,” Organ said.
But that study is just getting underway, and it remains difficult, overall, to know just how big game hunters, police officers, and the public navigate the many conflicting arguments around lead ammunition. “For a lot of people, the only exposure they get around this issue is from groups saying basically that the science is all junk,” says Brown. “So it’s challenging to come back and present research to a group that’s been told this research is no good.”
What’s clear is that the 11th-hour directive to phase out lead shot on federal lands, which was issued by Obama’s outgoing Fish & Wildlife Service director, Daniel M. Ashe, two weeks ago, has been met with a fair amount of outrage within the industry, as well as from the association representing state wildlife agencies, who complained loudly that they were not consulted ahead of the order. With President Trump receiving prominent endorsements from groups like the National Rifle Association, the National Shooting Sports Foundation, and the Fraternal Order of Police during his bid for the White House, it seems unlikely that the convictions of lead ammunition enthusiasts will be challenged by the new directive for long.
Neveau, standing under the American flag we’d pledged allegiance to that morning, admits that he might be inclined to shoot a certain type of bullet just because he’s told not to. “I’m not a big environmentalist or a liberal, and I don’t want to be pushed,” he says. What he does want, he says, is a bullet that will mushroom and kill an animal fast. To that end, he certainly wants it to also shoot straight. Neveau tried several different copper bullets on the range and found his bullet holes grouped within one inch of each other. “You’re always looking for less than one inch,” he says.
Lynne Peeples writes about science, health and the environment from her home office in Seattle. Her work has also appeared in Scientific American, Reuters, Popular Science, Environmental Health News, and Audubon Magazine, among other publications.