Get the Lead Out?

10 January 2013, 1118 EST

Lead bullets

Yesterday, Dan Drezner’s “one post about American gun violence” explicitly linked the post-Newtown debate about gun violence to Kevin Drum’s interesting and provocative Mother Jones article on the disturbing relationship between lead (Pb) in the environment and criminal violence. “If the White House is smart, they will take, verbatim, Kevin Drum’s suggested policy proposals for eliminating lead from our nation’s homes and topsoil.”

Like many of us at the Duck, Drezner is an IR scholar who frequently blogs about foreign policy. However, as a group, we are somewhat hesitant about entering into debates about domestic political issues that are remote from our primary areas of expertise. In this case, however, Drezner quite laudably attempts to find seemingly reasonable common ground between the anti-gun left and the gun lobby. Specifically, he plausibly asserts that a wide array of interest and identity groups should support a proposal to reduce lead in the environment:

The brilliant thing about adding this to the menu of policy proposals is that I suspect it would actually amass broad-based support.  Environmentalists will like it for obvious reasons, as will advocates of urban politics.  Parents will love it because they know lead is bad for you.  Policy wonks will love it because, well, the social science seems pretty rock-solid.  The best part, however, is that groups like the NRA would likely support it as well — because it makes them seem reasonable.  In the wake of Sandy Hook, an awful lot of commentators have been saying things like “it’s not just about guns,” with a reference to meantal [sic] health or violence in the culture.  The causal evidence linking lead poisoning to gun violence and violent crime would appear to be far stronger than the stuff on popular culture.  So it would be smart politics for the NRA to endorse those measures.

It’s pretty rare nowadays to come up with a policy solution that doesn’t run into some partisan divide — but this lead poisoning issue would seem to be the exception.

Who would oppose efforts to reduce lead in the environment? As a potential measure to reduce gun violence without actually reducing guns, promoting such a policy would allow the National Rifle Association to have its cake and eat it too.


Well, Drezner overlooked the fact that bullets are typically made of lead — and that the NRA has a long record of opposing essentially any measure that could conceivably be the first step towards regulating guns or ammunition. In fact, the NRA already has an established record of opposing efforts to limit lead bullets.

For example, the NRA successfully blocked an Obama administration proposal to ban the use of lead bullets in National Parks. The effort was favored by environmental groups, the Humane Society, and PETA, but vigorously opposed by the NRA and described by a gun advocate in September 2012 (pre-Newtown) as “the most significant threat facing the firearms and ammunitions industries today.”

During the debate, NRA research scientist Don Saba argued that the lead used in bullets is essentially harmless and that the environmental groups were confusing the public by failing to acknowledge the “tremendous toxicity difference between the highly inert metallic lead used in ammunition and the highly toxic lead compounds used in legacy leaded paints.”

I’m not going to try to wade through all the science to figure out if that claim is true, but I will note that there is fairly credible scientific evidence referenced in the debate suggesting that NRA scientists are wrong — bullets can cause lead poisoning in birds, other game, and human beings. A National Academy of Sciences paper, for instance, traced lead isotopes from bullets into the bloodstreams of poisoned California condors. Center for Disease Control tests found that people who consume wild game have 50% more lead in their blood than those who don’t eat it. That lead is viewed as harmful, particularly for children and pregnant women.

Given what we know about the Newtown shooter’s personal history, this warning from the New Jersey’s Health Department could easily factor into a broader debate about lead and violence: “Both outdoor and indoor firing ranges can be contaminated with high levels of lead.” The CDC has an entire webpage warning about these dangers for law enforcement officers and others who visit shooting ranges frequently.

Obviously, Drum and Drezner have in mind a much broader set of concerns about lead in the environment. They are talking about homes and topsoil. Indeed, the Environmental Protection Agency says that old lead paint remains the #1 source of the contaminant that threatens children. However, if a new national plan to reduce gun violence takes on lead as a causal factor, why would policymakers and interest groups ignore ammunition exposures, shooting ranges, food contaminated by hunting, etc.? Hunting alone puts an estimated 3000 tons of lead into the environment.

If a campaign focuses on these broader issues, it is hard to imagine the NRA behaving as Dan Drezner imagines they should. I’m pessimistic that the National Rifle Association is going to make common cause with the left in the proposed manner.