Gun Laws & Legislation

California Officially Bans Hunters From Using Lead Bullets

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Michael Bastasch DCNF Managing Editor
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Environmental activists cheered the California Fish and Game Commission’s decision to adopt regulations banning the use of lead ammunition for hunting throughout the Golden State.

In a unanimous vote, the Commission opted to phase out lead bullets, which hunters groups are calling a de-facto ban on hunting in the state. Environmentalists, on the other hand, are saying these regulations will save California Condors and Golden Eagles from getting lead poisoning.

The lead bullet ban comes from legislation signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, in 2013 that required lead bullets to be phased out of the state by no later than 2019. The bill was signed after environmentalists and animal rights activists convinced state politicians that lead bullets poisoned animals that condors and eagles fed on — causing them to be harmed in turn.

A bill that designated “lead-free” hunting zones was signed into law by former Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2007. By 2008, California hunters could not use ammunition containing more than one percent lead by weight within range of California condors.

But the Commission’s decision Thursday makes California the first state to completely ban lead bullets for hunting. Hunting groups argue the ban is intended to stop hunting altogether in the state because ammo prices will skyrocket.

The National Shooting Sports Foundation released a survey last year saying that “higher ammunition prices will drive 36 percent of California hunters to stop hunting or reduce their participation.”

What was the main reason for stopping or reducing hunting? A 300 percent price difference between lead bullets and non-lead bullets, depending on the type of round. Non-lead bullets make up only a small percentage of the ammunition market and manufacturers say they would have a hard time ramping up production of this ammo without serious price increases.

“In summary, prohibiting use of alternative [lead] ammunition will have significant effects on the state economy, wildlife conservation and hunters’ ability to enjoy the outdoors,” according to the report. “These negative impacts need to be carefully considered by those responsible for the well-being of California’s residents and wildlife.”

Critics of the law even argue there is no guarantee that alternatives to lead, like copper, are going to be any better for the environment.

But environmentalists insist that banning lead bullets will protect wildlife. They say non-lead bullets are less prone to fragmentation and will mean fewer birds — and even people — inadvertently consume a lead-tainted animal.

So why are ammo makers not willing to make non-lead bullets? Federal regulations, for one thing, at the U.S. Bureau of Tobacco and Firearms mean the agency must approve non-lead  bullets being sold on the market. The Californian reported last summer that the agency was holding up company petitions to make non-lead ammo.

But why? Well, non-lead bullets may be “greener,” but they are also much deadlier for law enforcement agents. Most non-lead ammo is brass, which are used to make armor-piercing bullets that can rip through body armor worn by law enforcement agents.

The Californian reported in June, “there were 19 petitions that the ATF has received from companies for new material technology in bullets, which are in a holding pattern … There is an exemption in the workings for sport shooting, but that is hung up in the bureaucracy as well.”

But conflicting federal and state regulations over non-lead ammo only bolster critics’ claims that the lead bullet ban is a de-facto ban on hunting. The federal government is preventing companies from making non-lead bullets, but California won’t allow hunters to use lead ammo.

It looks like a Catch-22 for hunters.

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