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California is First State to Ban Lead Ammo in Hunters' Guns

Banned! | Photo: mr. smashy/Flickr/Creative Commons License

A bill signed Friday by Governor Jerry Brown will make it illegal to use lead ammunition for hunting, making California the first state to ban the heavy metal from hunters' shot and bullets. The bill was roundly supported by most environmental organizations, and just as roundly opposed by hunting groups.

AB 711, introduced by Los Angeles area Assembly member Anthony Rendon, requires that non-lead ammunition be used in all hunting of mammals, birds, and other wildlife by July, 2019. The law also requires the state's Fish and Game Commission to certify a list of non-lead ammunition by 2014.

As a nod to hunters, the law also contains an escape clause lifting the lead ammo ban if federal laws start classifying non-lead ammunition as prohibited "armor-piercing" bullets. The gun lobby had expressed concern that the lead ban might end up effectively making hunting illegal if the feds banned non-lead ammo.

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Lead is a potent heavy metal neurotoxin that has been implicated in the continuing decline of the California Condor, as well as other animals who scavenge hunters' kills. Condors and other animals ingest lead shot and fragmented bullets when eating shot carcasses, and stomach acids are effective at moving that lead into the animals' bloodstreams. Some animals are also attracted to, and may consume, lead shot found outside carrion.

The U.S. Geological Survey has estimated that some popular hunting grounds in California may contain up to 400,000 pieces of lead shot per acre. As commonly used shot ranges in weight from under a gram to 5 grams or more per pellet, that can easily work out to more than a ton of lead per acre. Lead poisoning from ammunition isn't just a wildlife health issue: livestock that graze on land contaminated with lead shot often ingest the metal, leading to lead-contaminated meat and dairy products.

In a signing statement, Governor Brown noted that lead poisoning from ammunition has been noted for more than a century, with pioneering outdoor writer George Bird Grinnell noting the problem in 1894 in the magazine Field and Stream. Brown said that the escape clause offered hunters sufficient protection against an inadvertent total ammunition ban that allowed him to sign the bill, saying that "hunters and anglers are the first conservationists."

AB 711's 2019 cut-off date was delayed substantially as the bill worked its way through the legislature: the version first passed out of the Assembly's Water, Parks, and Wildlife Committee -- which Rendon chairs -- had that date set at 2016. The language in the final bill gives the Fish and Game Commission latitude to enact a ban sooner than July 2019, if it decides that's a good idea.

This isn't the first lead ammo ban in the state: in 2007, a law signed by Arnold Schwarzenegger prohibited the use of lead-containing ammunition in the parts of the state where condors live. Other states have enacted partial lead ammunition bans in the past, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service banned lead shot nationwide for hunting waterfowl in 1991.

A federal court earlier this year dismissed a lawsuit that attempted to force the Environmental Protection Agency to start banning lead ammunition nationwide.

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About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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