Where did the lead come from that killed the condor? From a gun barrel, obviously. But before that? The manufacturer. And before that? Early European firearms came into existence before the end of the Middle Ages, and ever since then, through the Ages of Exploration, Colonization, Imperialism, Industrialism, our Digital Age and likely beyond, gunpowder has made the world go ‘round. And until recently, those guns were firing exclusively lead bullets. Lead has been the standard for small-caliber ammunition from practically the first shot fired. Lead is a soft metal, and incredibly abundant. Lead can be melted down and shaped by almost anyone, a key factor in previous centuries when there was no such thing as a local hunting goods store. The malleability of lead allowed our Founding Fathers to fashion their own bullets from household objects. Lead expands once it hits its target, a byproduct of its natural composition. This expansion produces wounds that are larger, and thus more lethal. Through war and peace, guns and gunpowder have been the deciding factor in human civilization for several hundred years, and until very recently, lead was the universal constant. Everything done, every advancement made, every improvement considered, was designed to incorporate lead. Like automobiles and gasoline, the firearm industry has singularly revolved around lead’s constant presence, seemingly from its inception.
By comparison, lead was a common ingredient in house paints until 1978. In 2012, we know that lead is toxic. At Liberty Wildlife, we know that this California condor, numbered 246, died a slow, agonizing, and arguably pointless death. No one can dispute that lead is dangerous, but reversing hundreds of years of precedent is a heady task. Every gun on every continent in every war since the bow gave way to the bullet has been designed, tested, and perfected around the idea of using lead. Lead as a material is cheaper than copper, and since guns have been historically designed to use lead, lead bullets typically perform more effectively and at a far cheaper price. Copper is a lighter material and lacks some of the expansive characteristics that makes lead an effective killer. While “killer” sounds brutal, the fact that a lead bullet expands as it does when passing through a target makes it a more humane hunting tool because of it. Everything we thought we knew about firing a gun needs to be reconceived to match the different qualities of copper and how they relate to ballistics. Copper can, and almost undoubtedly will replace lead as the gold standard for ammunition, but recognizing that fact, and expediting it, are two different things. It’s almost like rethinking the wheel. It can certainly be done, but it takes time before you have a hovership.
California banned lead ammunition from condor ranges in 2007. Most likely, other states will follow suit, regardless of whether there are endangered animals or not. All animals deserve our thoughtfulness. That said, the issue itself deserves thoughtfulness. Before lead can be completely removed from the equation, there needs to be a widespread, available, and affordable alternative. We must keep in mind that a lack of change could be the result of a current lack of options, rather than a lack of caring. As companies are forced to redesign both gun and bullet to suit the characteristics of copper rather than lead, both time and money will be consumed. The market, essentially, must undergo a complete shift – one that, while necessary, cannot be completed overnight. What do we do in the meantime? The only weapon more powerful than a gun is knowledge. This is a complex issue, for everyone involved: rehabber, hunter, environmentalist, manufacturer. The more knowledge we all have, of all sides, the better off we’ll be.