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The NRA's Paranoid Defense of Lead Shot
Iowa’s Toxic Killing Fields
by WALTER M. BRASCH

Iowa, which gave us the carnival known as the Iowa Straw Poll and artery-clogging Deep Fried butter, will unleash another health problem, beginning Sept. 1. 

The Iowa legislature last year approved a dove hunting season, the first in more than nine decades. However, the state’s Department of Natural Resources and the Natural Resources Commission (DNR) banned the use of lead shot and bullets. 

That led to a massive all-out assault by the National Rifle Association (NRA) and the U.S. Sportsman’s Alliance (USSA). 

In a letter to Gov. Terry Branstad, the NRA underscored its opposition by waving a veiled threat that banning lead ammunition is an “attack [on] our freedoms.” 

“Absurd,” replied Robert Johns of the American Bird Conservancy, who explained that “the NRA continues to deliberately miscast the lead-versus-nonlead ammunition issue as an attack on hunting.” There is nothing in the Constitution or in any federal court decision that would prohibit the banning of any specific kind of ammunition. 

The NRA blatantly suggested the ban on lead shot ”is designed to price hunters out of the market and keep them from taking part in traversing Iowa’s fields and forests.” For its “evidence,” it pointed out the cost of non-toxic ammunition is higher than ammunition made of lead. However, the use of non-toxic shot results in only a 1-2 percent increase in total costs for hunters, according to a study conducted by the National Wildlife Research Centre, certainly not enough to justify the NRA’s paranoid panic that non-toxic bullets will lead to a decrease in hunting. 

Iowa’s DNR, the NRA claimed, was echoing not just environmental extremism but “the unscientific battle cry of the anti-hunting extremists.” 

Contrary to NRA and USSA statements, there are several hundred scientific studies that conclude that lead shot is a health and environmental danger. Lead can cause behavioral problems, learning disabilities, reduced reproduction, neurological damage, and genetic mutation. For those reasons alone, the U.S. bans lead in gasoline, water pipes, windows, pottery, toys, paint, and hundreds of other items. 

“Wildlife is poisoned when animals scavenge on carcasses shot and contaminated with lead-bullet fragments, or pick up and eat spent lead-shot pellets[,]mistaking them for food or grit,” the Center for Biological Diversity points out. As many as 20 million birds and other animals die each year from lead poisoning, says the CBD. 

Humans can be poisoned by eating animals that have eaten the pellets from the ground or which have eaten decaying carcasses of birds that have been shot with lead ammunition. Iowa is one of only 15 states that don’t have some regulation that bans lead in shot and ammunition. Most European countries ban the use of lead shot for hunting. 

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1991 banned the use of lead shot in all waterfowl hunting. The NRA screamed its opposition at that time. However, the ban didn’t lead to a reduction of hunting or hunters, nor did it violate any part of the Constitution. 

R.T. Cox, in his column, “The Sage Grouse,” notes that “bird hunters can leave 400,000 pellets per acre of intensely hunted areas.” About 81,000 tons of lead shot are left on shooting ranges each year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Part of the reason for so much lead shot on the ground is that doves, which can fly up to 50 miles per hour and make sharp turns, are difficult to hit. While hunters may claim they shoot the birds as a food source, such claims are usually blatant lies meant to hide the reality that the 20 million doves killed each year are nothing more than live targets. The five ounce mourning dove, hit by shot, provides little usable meat. The NRA even advises hunters that for health reasons, they should “cut away a generous portion of meat around the wound channel.” 

Lead on the dove killing fields isn’t the only problem. An investigation by the North Dakota Dept. of Health in 2007 revealed that 58 percent of venison donated to food banks by the Safari Club contained lead fragments. During the past decade, 276 California condors were found to have had lead poisoning; there are fewer than 400 in the state. A ban on lead shot was enacted in 2007. 

There are alternatives to using lead. Non-toxic bullets and shot are made from tungsten, copper, and steel, without the negative health problems. While some hunting advocates maintain that lead bullets are significantly better in the field, there is no evidence to suggest that “green” ammunition results in fewer kills. 

Nevertheless, disregarding scientific evidence and facing NRA wrath, Branstad said he agreed with a legislative panel’s decision to ignore the findings of the state’s professional wildlife conservationists, who he said exceeded their authority, to restore lead shot hunting. 

Andrew Page, a senior director for the Humane Society of the United States, has another opinion, one far more logical than the NRA/NSSA rants: “If hunters are conservationists as they say they are, they should be the first to stand up and say they won’t poison wildlife or the ecosystem.” 

Walter Brasch’s latest book is Before the First Snow, a story of America’s counterculture as seen through the eyes of a “flower child” and the reporter who covered her life for three decades.