California Is the First State to Ban Lead Ammunition: Should All States Follow Suit?

Candice Gaukel Andrews February 18, 2014 25

The primary birds affected by lead bullets are waterfowl and raptors, including bald eagles. ©Eric Rock

Kudos to California. Last October, it became the first state to ban lead ammunition for all types of hunting. The ban will benefit the state’s namesake condors, which nearly went extinct. In 1982, only 22 California condors remained on the planet. Fortunately, conservation efforts brought the population back to nearly 400 by 2010, with about half of those living in the wild. But researchers warn that without greatly reducing or eliminating the risk of lead poisoning, the condors are unlikely to ever be able to establish a self-sustaining population.

However, those who are opposed to the ban believe that it will drive up the cost of hunting, resulting in even less funds for wildlife conservation; that it could eventually lead to the elimination of all hunting in the state; and that voluntary programs are far more effective at achieving hunter compliance.

Because of lead’s extreme toxicity to birds and mammals, should there be a nationwide ban on ammunition containing it?

The spread of lead

While mountain lions are predators, they are known to scavenge on scraps that human hunters leave behind. ©Henry H. Holdsworth

Lead is particularly harmful to the nervous system and the brain. Because it’s soft, it fractures and fragments into tiny pieces upon impact with muscle. As a result, animals and birds that eat carcasses containing lead-bullet shards risk exposure to the toxic metal. Its health hazards extend to hunters who eat a lot of meat that has been laced with lead ammunition.

Reports of lead poisoning in waterfowl date back to the late 1800s. In 1991, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued a nationwide ban on lead shot for hunting such birds. Since then, evidence has continued to mount about lead ammunition poisoning in other types of wildlife. Species that scavenge—such as bald and golden eagles, bears, California condors, mountain lions, ravens and turkey vultures—have especially been exposed to and affected by lead.

However, wild animals aren’t the only ones suffering from lead in the environment. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that some popular hunting grounds in California may contain up to 400,000 pieces of lead shot per acre. Since commonly used shot ranges in weight from under a gram to five grams or more per pellet, that can easily work out to more than a ton of lead per acre. Livestock that graze on land contaminated with lead shot often ingest the metal, leading to lead-contaminated meat and dairy products.

In order to provide some protection for its condor population, California banned the use of lead ammunition in the state’s condor range (in eight counties) in 2007. And at least 30 other states regulate lead ammunition in some manner. But California is the first to institute a statewide ban.

Legislation or voluntary compliance?

On October 11, 2013, when Governor Jerry Brown signed Assembly Bill 711, which requires that nonleaded ammunition be used in all hunting of mammals, birds and other wildlife by July 1, 2019, he noted that hunters and anglers are “the original conservationists” and that switching to nontoxic ammunition “will allow them to continue the conservation heritage of California.”

Despite a 1991 federal ban on lead shot for waterfowl hunting, lead poisoning remains a problem for birds through bigger game hunting, such as for deer. ©John T. Andrews

Many hunters, however, believe that “heritage” may be a factor that will keep them attached to their lead bullets. The use of lead ammunition dates back to the 14th century, and hunters historically tend to rely on traditions that brought them success in previous hunts.

Another objection to the statewide California ban is that nonleaded bullets may drive up the cost of hunting—that they are more expensive and harder to find at stores. That could move people away from hunting, reducing the amount of funds that hunting licenses contribute to conservation efforts. And, if federal laws start classifying nonleaded ammunition as prohibited “armor-piercing” bullets, the California ban would effectively eliminate all hunting in the state.

Proponents of the bill counter that according to a recent study, lead-free bullets are available at the same retail cost as leaded ammunition for most popular calibers. And, as a nod to hunters, Assembly Bill 711 contains an escape clause lifting the lead ammo ban if federal laws do start classifying nonleaded ammunition as prohibited, armor-piercing bullets.

As an alternative to California’s legislation, other states have tried volunteer approaches to getting rid of lead ammunition. Since 2005, the Arizona Game and Fish Department has provided free, nonleaded ammunition to big game hunters in certain regions. If hunters still prefer to use lead ammunition, they are offered incentives to haul shot animals and gut piles out of the field in order to remove the source of lead. The participation rate in such voluntary measures is 88 percent. In the long run, say those who prefer a voluntary approach, appealing to a hunter’s conservation ethic may be more effective than legislation.

Do you think that other states should follow California and ban all nonleaded ammo? Or will voluntary programs and education about the harmful effects of lead in the environment resonate with hunters?

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,



  1. Terry Bayliss February 28, 2014 at 7:30 am - Reply

    Given all the research and scientific evidence of biological magnification through the food chain, the banning of lead shot should be more common in the United States.

  2. Judy van Schalkwyk February 26, 2014 at 6:12 pm - Reply

    I just attended a talk on vultures and was shocked to learn that they are killed by lead poisoning from animals which have been shot. One species has declined by 70 % in the last 15 years due to several reasons, including lead poisoning. As humans, which have the ability to make a change in our behaviour, I think we should make a small compromise to save these beneficial birds. I’m sure there’s somebody out there that can make a bullet that can kill animals swiftly or perhaps hunters need to practice their accuracy instead of relying on the bullet.

    • Lorne Johnson August 14, 2014 at 12:29 am - Reply

      Animals and birds are exposed to and affected by lead, but not many are aware about this. California’s ban on lead ammunition is a great step. Which state will be next?

  3. Rasmus Forsberg February 24, 2014 at 1:29 pm - Reply

    Denmark banned led ammunition 15 years ago. Traces of led is still present in the invironment. Hunters where rather cross to begin with, but no one questions the law to day

  4. s j brown February 21, 2014 at 12:57 pm - Reply

    This is a complex question. I admit I do not hunt or fish, however I know several hunters and fisherman. Their take is if there is a viable alternative, then why use lead.

  5. Ford Mauney February 21, 2014 at 12:55 pm - Reply

    My best friend works as the director of the medical clinic at the
    Charleston, SC Center for Avian Conservation: Center for Birds Of Prey. They take in at least one bald eagle a week with lead poisoning if not an eagle then it is a Black or Turkey vulture for the same reason. In conjunction to lead testing they take x-rays which reveal the presence of lead shot or bullet fragments in their digestive tracts. Unless I am mistaken, increased lead levels in water do not form concentrations in the form of lead shot and bullet fragments. If lead levels were on the increase in water then all animals not just raptors would be affected. These incidents of lead poisoning increase during the hunting season and usually spike in January/February. Scavengers seem to be the most effected but the same issue occurs in several other raptors.

  6. Kevin Pack February 20, 2014 at 12:40 pm - Reply

    Just to stir the pot a little more.

    What are you going to do about your car, lead is used exclusively to balance your tires, there is no replacement, it is used in your car battery, lead is used in solder, (antimony) for all forms of electronic components to put your copper water pipes together in your house, your standard aaa through 9 volt battery, used in the manufacture of glass, ceramics and multitudes of other materials.

    So if California as a state is going to ban lead is it going to then ban all of the uses above? If not why not?

  7. Geri Foster Thomas February 20, 2014 at 12:39 pm - Reply


  8. Kevin Pack February 20, 2014 at 12:38 pm - Reply

    John –

    First being from California as well, the ban was against the Fish & Game recommendations, (I know this personally and it was actually reported out in the legislature hearings), now if it goes against the recommendations why the ban? You do realize that the ban pertains to all lead, including fishing weights.

    Lead is a naturally occurring element that can be found in surface deposits and when it is left in the open environment it degrades to a powder at a fairly rapid rate. One of the expected replacements is Tungsten, here is a little about Tungsten –

    Effects of tungsten on the Environment

    Tungsten metal powder administered to animals has been shown in several studies as not altogether inert. One study found that guinea pigs treated orally or intravenously with tungsten suffered from anorexia, colic, incoordination of movement, trembling, dyspnea and weight loss.

    Now we are supposed to be removing lead because of the California Condor and the effects on reproduction as well as the negative effect on the environment, if it is a naturally occurring element what is the negative effect? As you can see from the analysis above Tungsten also has a fairly nasty effect on animals, so why use something that is arguably just as bad? Does this makes sense to you?

    I am also aware that there are other forces at work here in this state that you know as well, that have the stated goal of banning firearms, so denying the obvious is not becoming, It has been the stated goal of this, as well as other legislatures to remove guns entirely, or severely limit them, that is on record.

    Larry – why ban the lead? first in most cases the lead is jacketed in other words protected by a shell of copper or other metal, second it is a naturally occurring element, third the decline in the California condor has as much to do with the fact that it is the last of the Ice Age animals and most of its diet died a long time ago. The next major decline in the evolution of the California condor started with the introduction of pesticides and DDT in the late 30’s. Now DDT is gone but pesticides in California are still an issue and used widely through out the range of the condor in California. Arizona has a resident population of the California condor that is thriving, and the big difference is they are located in a non agricultural area away from pesticides. So is it the lead or is it the location?

    There is always much more to the story than the knee jerk reaction and tug at the heart strings.

  9. Kameswara K. Rao February 20, 2014 at 9:50 am - Reply

    Yes, all other states should follow.

  10. Michael Thiel February 20, 2014 at 6:46 am - Reply

    I really don’t think there’s too much worry about animals eating lead. It just doesn’t smell or taste that good, and if they are being shot, they’ll be just as dead with a copper, steel or other lead-replacement bullet (if there is a good lead replacement) as if they had been shot with lead. The one place where I’m aware that lead has been a problem, as far as shooting is concerned, is with waterfowl and steel or other substitutes have been the only legal shot to be used there for well over 20 years. California just seems to have a thing about promulgating crazy laws. Have you noticed on how many ordinary, everyday purchases the message “Known by the State of California to cause cancer (or something else)” appears. Makes you wonder how they are so all-knowing.

  11. Toby Stephenson February 20, 2014 at 6:19 am - Reply

    In fact all states should ban guns full stop.
    How many times do we have to see a madman gun down an entire school on thew news before we finally get the message?

  12. Alysse D February 20, 2014 at 6:17 am - Reply

    Good job Cali! California condors and other endangered species are safer and so are hunters. The other states should applaud California and consider protecting hunters and citizens in general from lead poisoning. Lead is banned in paint, so why not ban it in bullets. Thanks for sharing some good news.

  13. Jordan Hopp February 19, 2014 at 5:50 pm - Reply

    I only use steel ammunition simply because I am a big waterfowl hunter. And have no problem paying a little extra for non-toxic ammo. Plus it is better for the environment in some measure.

  14. Jason Fritz February 19, 2014 at 5:49 pm - Reply

    Can anyone be certain that increased lead levels in apex predators caused by fragmented lead bullets? Wouldn’t a more likely culprit be increased concentrations of lead in the water?

  15. Muzeyen Turke February 19, 2014 at 11:57 am - Reply

    Great work keep it up!!

  16. Larry Ehemann February 19, 2014 at 11:57 am - Reply

    You are so right Candice—-ban lead.

  17. Douglas Fink February 19, 2014 at 11:56 am - Reply

    I have not hunted in years {still have a license} and I think this is a great idea. I liked this part of the article although the “armor piercing” is a bit confusing – there should be a way around that label:

    “Proponents of the bill counter that according to a recent study, lead-free bullets are available at the same retail cost as leaded ammunition for most popular calibers. And, as a nod to hunters, Assembly Bill 711 contains an escape clause lifting the lead ammo ban if federal laws do start classifying nonleaded ammunition as prohibited, armor-piercing bullets.”

    • Candice Gaukel Andrews February 19, 2014 at 12:09 pm - Reply

      Hi, Douglas,

      “Armor-piercing” is a term used by the U.S. government to describe ammunition specially designed for this particular purpose. Ammo of this kind is also sometimes referred to as “armor-piercing shot and shell.”

      You can find such government terms and their definitions here, on the Cornell University Law School website:

      Thanks for your comment!


  18. Kevin Travis February 19, 2014 at 11:54 am - Reply

    In my experience, this is a true statement. Provided that the lead is travelling at 2800 ft/second. First, they ban the ammo, then the guns will soon follow. I guess this is just a way for the current government to circumvent the second amendment.

  19. John Connolly February 19, 2014 at 11:52 am - Reply

    Well yes, if you’re going to eat a bullet then you shouldn’t want it to be made of lead, you might get lead poisoning, it’s unhealthy.

  20. Rob Branch-Dasch February 18, 2014 at 1:29 pm - Reply

    Lead is a known toxin; the fact that we continue to manufacture anything at all with lead is ridiculous. In truth, it’s probably an indication of the influence that applicable industries have over relevant law-makers. Numerous industries assure the public that hazardous and potentially toxic materials can be handled safely, and in some cases ingested safely in small quantities. This leads to a variety of growing problems in our soil, water, air, and bodies.

    Of course, a line has to be drawn somewhere; if we were to ban all hazardous and potentially toxic materials what would be left? It’s a staggering thought. I’d like to suggest that we’ve allowed far too much – usually in the names of productivity, convenience, technology, yield, fashion, or profit. None of these things are bad, but all are possible without poisoning our world or ourselves.

    So congratulations to California for banning lead bullets. Were it up to me, all bullets would be banned, not just lead ones, but I know that’s not possible right now. Sadly, Arizona’s legislature is highly unlikely to pass any bill that benefits the environment or human health; they will continue to fiddle while Rome burns around them.

  21. John Daly February 18, 2014 at 12:40 pm - Reply

    Being from California I am proud we are on the cutting edge on many issues. Yes, Lead should be banned from all ammo.

  22. BOB LECH February 18, 2014 at 12:39 pm - Reply

    I think way back on 1980 NJ banned the lead shot in shot gun shells.
    Even if you missed the duck you added lead to the water.
    Even today when I do plumbing I use PVC pipe and lead has been removed from solder.
    There are many other metals that can be used but lead is easy on the rifle barrel and as far as plumbing lead does not leach into the water so I question the ban on lead ammo.
    Just about everything is being banned or recycled today so it will be a few years and any item you buy,eat or drink will have some sort of limit on it.
    What CA. does not tell you is the State went broke when they started to recycle aluminum soda cans.
    Also just about any thing you get from CA. has a note that the product has been known to cause cancer.
    I think most of this is nothing more then a money making machine

  23. HuntForTruth February 18, 2014 at 10:22 am - Reply

    Animal rights groups like the Humane Society of the US, Audubon California, Center for Biological Diversity, and Action For Animals convinced the California legislature to ban lead ammunition for all hunting in California (AB 711). The same groups may try to expand the ban to your state. These groups claim that scavenging animals, such as the California condor, ingest and are poisoned by pieces of metallic lead bullets present in gut piles of harvested game left in the field by hunters. They rely on certain scientific papers that allegedly support these claims, and often use the poisoning of the California condor to justify their anti-lead ammunition agenda.

    But there are serious scientific questions about the validity of their claims. The failure of the hastily-enacted California lead ammunition ban legislation of 2007 (AB 821) suggests that these groups are wrong. AB 821 has not resulted in lower blood-lead levels or otherwise reduced lead poisoning in condors. Despite the California Department of Fish & Wildlife’s acknowledgment that 99% of hunters are complying with the lead ban in the “condor zone” since the law took effect, condors’ blood-lead levels, poisoning and mortality have increased since 2007!

    Lead ban proponents also argue that there is a human health risk from eating meat from game shot with traditional lead ammunition. However, a recently published study out of Nuremberg, Germany, found that lead fragments in the gastrointestinal tract were found to be insignificant from a human health perspective. The study found that metallic lead used in lead ammunition even in a finely divided form, cannot, if ingested, be absorbed directly into the body’s organs, tissues, blood & bone.

    There are obviously other sources of lead in the environment. These alternative sources are likely an industrial lead compound (e.g leaded gasoline, paint or pesticides), which is far more soluble and bioavailable to condors. We have identified some of those potential alternative sources, and we encourage you to join the hunt for the truth with us and learn the real facts! To learn all the facts in the lead ammunition debate, visit

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