California is set to become the first state to ban the use of lead bullets for all hunting activities. The law, originally passed in 2013, will take full effect in less than one month on July 1, 2019, and will apply to all hunters taking any type of game with a firearm on public or private land.
“All ammunition in a hunter’s possession may be inspected by wildlife officers,” the California Department of Fish and Wildlife says on its website. “In some cases, if a wildlife officer suspects a hunter is in possession of lead ammunition and cannot prove otherwise in the field, he or she may seize a cartridge or bullet for further analysis.”
The agency encourages hunters to keep their ammunition box with them to verify that they are using certified non-lead ammunition.
First-time offenders risk losing hunting privileges and can be fined up to $500. Subsequent violations bring a minimum $1,000 fine.
Proponents of the ban argue that lead bullets present an environmental risk to wildlife, especially the endangered California Condor. Studies conducted before the law’s passage suggested that the bird population was being poisoned after ingesting lead fragments left behind by hunters in the entrails of game animals.
“The problem is really epidemic,” toxicologist Myra Finkelstein told local media in 2013. “These California condors are exposed to chronic harmful levels of lead.”
Opponents of the bill counter that birds are exposed to lead from a variety of sources.
California Rifle and Pistol Association (CRPA) Executive Director Rick Travis pointed out to NRA TV recently that lead can be found in discarded tools like tire irons as well as rocks pulled up during the Gold Rush. He also noted that California turkey buzzards consume entrails from game animals and haven’t experienced declining populations.
“There are a lot of other attributing causes to this, but of course the anti-Second Amendment, anti-firearms, anti-hunting movement attributes everything to what we do in the field with our firearms and lead-based bullets,” he said.
Hunters worry that cartridges using certified non-lead bullets might cost more than cartridges using traditional copper-jacketed bullets. This concern was more acute in 2013. Since then, manufacturers like Barnes have ramped up production of copper hunting bullets, and today the price difference between traditional and non-lead cartridges has shrunk.
Hunters with firearms with unusual chamberings, however, are still out of luck. As Travis notes, few manufacturers make lead-free options for unique cartridges since the customer base is so small. Those hunters will be forced either to switch firearms or hand-load with non-lead bullets.
As with other gun-control measures field tested by the Golden State, bans on lead bullets will likely begin working their way across the country. Travis reports that other states in the so-called “Condor Range,” including Colorado, Nevada, and Arizona, are considering total bans:
“This is not just going to stay here in California. It’s being talked about in the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies. It’s going throughout the west.”