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Repeal of California's Lead Ammo Ban Fails -- For Now

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California condor being released at Hopper Mountain NWR faces a landscape poisoned with lead shrapnel | Photo: USFWS/Flickr/Creative Commons License

A bill that would have repealed most of California's landmark ban on lead ammunition won't be passing before the ban begins to take effect.

The bill, AB 395, would have reversed a law signed by Governor Brown in 2013 that requires the state to ban almost all lead ammunition in an effort to protect the endangered California condor. Condors are particularly susceptible to poisoning when they consume carrion that contains lead shrapnel from hunters' bullets. The law obliges the California Fish and Game Commission to draw up rules to enforce the ban by July 1 of this year.

Introduced in February, AB 395 failed to gain support outside the hunting community. Its author, Yuba City Assembly member James Gallagher canceled a hearing on the bill in the Assembly's Water, Parks, and Wildlife Committee in April. The bill would have needed to make it from Water, Parks, and Wildlife to the Appropriations Committee by Wednesday in order to reach the Assembly floor this year.

Lead bullets can fragment into dozens or hundreds of pieces when they hit bone. Condors scavenging a killed animal or hunters' discarded gutpile consume those lead fragments, and the birds' powerful stomach acids rapidly carry the toxic heavy metal into their bloodstreams. A single 22-caliber bullet contains enough lead to fatally poison a healthy adult condor, and it's not an easy death: the birds digestive systems shut down and they die of starvation.

Assembly member Gallagher said when he introduced the bill that lead levels in condors' blood has stayed the same or increased despite a lead ammunition ban in effect since 2007 in the condor range, and questioned whether the birds might be getting their lead from sources other than ammunition.

Ban advocates counter that that lead likely originates from ammunition purchased in California and used illegally in the condor's range.

Gallagher also maintained that a switch to non-lead ammunition would have cost the state $9 million in forgone hunting licenses, presumably due to conventional wisdom that lead-free ammunition costs about twice as much as the lead kind. Advocates of the ban say that no significant difference exists in retail price of either kind of ammunition.

Lead shot for hunting waterfowl has been banned by federal law since 1991, with little effect on the number of hunting licenses issued. In fact, waterfowl hunters' longtime acceptance of steel shot may have kept an often monolithic hunting community from uniting to support Gallagher's repeal bill.

According to the rules of the California Legislature, AB 395 could conceivably be revived in Assembly, Parks, and Wildlife after the beginning of the 2016 session. Given Gallagher's cancellation of the committee's first hearing on his own bill, that seems unlikely.

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