There’s more than one way a hail of bullets can put a community’s health at risk. Residual lead from shooting ranges can poison humans and contaminate nearby soil or water, sometimes with dangerous consequences.
The United States is home to more than than seven thousand shooting ranges, according to The National Shooting Sports Foundation, the gun industry’s largest trade group. Every year, these facilities attract an estimated 20 million visitors, who produce staggering amounts of debris. According to the Department of the Interior’s U.S. Geological Survey, an individual range can go through between 1.5 to 20 tons of lead shot and bullets annually. Outdoor ranges as a whole may use more than 80,000 tons in that same period.
The people and creatures who exist around lead are at the greatest risk for health issues. Increased exposure to the toxic metal can cause paralysis, neurological damage, and death. “In some circumstances, a waterfowl species could ingest one lead shot and die, or perhaps even less,” Dr. Barnett Rattner, a scientist for the US Geological Survey, tells The Trace. Indoor ranges in particular pose threats to humans: A blood test for one former Kentucky gun range manager, as reported by the Seattle Times, detected lead levels 56 times higher than the average adult’s, putting him in danger of organ failure.
But despite the potential risks ranges pose to their surroundings, they receive little oversight from the federal government. The Environmental Protection Agency does not regulate range design or maintenance. (It does circulate a best practices guide to managing lead from gun ranges.) According to the Seattle Times investigation, as of 2014, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration had only inspected 201 gun ranges nationwide. Of those inspected, 86 percent had a lead-related violation.
In many cases, ranges only confront the problem of toxic debris when so much has accumulated that it attracts the attention of local government or outside activists. (Ranges that shoot directly into or near bodies of water are at a higher likelihood of environmental litigation or government action, for example, due to laws protecting wetlands from hazardous waste.) Faced with the prohibitive costs of a massive cleanup, some ranges are forced to close, leaving taxpayers with the bill. As a result, fights over lead decontamination can be contentious, and in some cases have attracted the interest of the National Rifle Association. As The Trace reported this week, Marion Hammer, one of the gun group’s most powerful lobbyists, has twice intervened on behalf of a Florida gun range facing high expenses involving environmental concerns.
A similar case raged for the past year in California’s San Francisco Bay. In 1963, the Chabot Gun Club opened an outdoor range on land leased from the East Bay Regional Parks District, just south of Oakland. The facility sat within the watershed of nearby Lake Chabot, a back-up reservoir for drinking water. This March, the Parks District voted not to renew the club’s lease after examining the cost of complying with a new state rule that would require updating the range’s stormwater drainage at a cost of more than $265,000. But the bigger challenge was remediating 50 years worth of lead leftover in the hillside that provided the range’s earthen backstop.
The district initially estimated that removing the lead would cost $1.6 million. By the time of the vote, that quote grew to as much as $20 million. Taxpayers would bear any costs the club couldn’t afford. A group of several hundred people organized by the NRA and the California Rifle and Pistol Association showed up to the Parks District’s meeting too try to sway the vote. Advocates for the club contended the estimated cleanup cost was inflated by officials determined to close the facility from the outset.
In fact, a review of other range clean ups shows the estimated bill for the Chabot to be in line with going rates. Just across the Bay, the city of San Francisco is shelling out $22 million for a cleanup at the site of the former Pacific Rod and Gun Club, which for 80 years operated a trap shooting range on the shores of Lake Merced. Until 1994, the club allowed lead shot, much of which remains in the soil. To ensure the property is safe for any future use, the city will have to replace four feet of topsoil over 11 acres. The city could have faced a far steeper remediation bill had it decided to remove the shot that had also accumulated on the lakebed. It opted not to take that step.
For locations abundant with wildlife, leaving lead undisturbed isn’t always an option. In Stratford, Connecticut, the Remington Gun Club operated for almost seventy years on a peninsula jutting into the Long Island until the mid-1980s, when a group of fisherman asked what all that shot was doing to local shellfish. One study found that the club had deposited 5 million pounds of lead and 11 million pounds of toxic target fragments on its grounds and nearby waters. Half the ducks in the area had acute lead poisoning, caused by ingesting the shot while diving for food. Mussels, clams, and oysters were found to contain 10 times the normal level of lead. As a result, the town banned shellfish harvesting on the site.
The fishermen filed a lawsuit, alleging the club was responsible for cleaning up the debris under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, which regulates disposal of hazardous waste. The ensuing fight split local gun owners. The club and its members argued that laws on disposal of hazardous waste didn’t apply to materials leftover as a result of recreation. But local hunters backed the suit, according to Terry Backer, one of the plaintiffs. “They wanted to be hunting ducks, not having them die from poisoning,” he told The Trace last year.
The fisherman ultimately won their case, but the cleanup has not been easy. As recently as 2005, remediation efforts were still removing hundreds of tons of shot and targets from the site. Rick Jacobson, the director of the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection’s Wildlife division, says the area is an ongoing hazard to animals. “Lead is constantly being made biophysically available due to wave action,” he explains: tidal flow unsettles material resting in the ground below the water’s surface, making it easier for animals to ingest.
For now, shooting’s environmental impact does not loom large in the national gun debate — and industry leaders would like to keep it that way. At the end of this month in Portland, Oregon, the NSSF will hold it third annual conference dedicated to keeping ranges from becoming environmental or health hazards. (The NSSF did not return a request for comment.) The event will also discuss how shooting range owners can avoid civil or criminal liability and keep themselves out of a genre of cases that’s emerged as a burgeoning, and politically charged, area of law. Some attorneys specializing on the topic characterize environmental suits as “a pretext for trying to shut a range down” by “anti-gun neighbors.”
Photo: Mark Hoffman / Milwaukee Journal Sentinel