Green Bullets Bill Misses Target

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — A bill that would take the lead out of hunting ammunition was effectively shot down during its first Statehouse hearing.

“I don’t think we are particularly ready for this particular bill at this time,” said Rep. Donna Walsh, D-Charlestown, a member of the House Committee on the Environment and Natural Resources.

From the start of the April 17 House hearing, Walsh questioned the ban, noting that alternative ammunition such as tungsten and bismuth are no safer than lead. She also questioned whether animals killed by lead bullets pose a risk to humans.

“I’ve eaten a lot of game pheasants, rabbits, deer, the whole thing and I think my brain is still pretty good. I’m OK," she said.

The bill 7838 seeks to remove all lead hunting ammunition in Rhode Island by 2017. It mimics a California law, the only full ban on lead ammunition in the country, passed in 2013. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service banned lead from waterfowl hunting in 1991. Lead is allowed for land-based hunting, sport shooting and fishing tackle.

Although there was a strong presence from gun rights groups at the House hearing, the opposition focused on the lack of data that lead ammunition showed negative effects on wildlife and humans. Copper ammo also is toxic and expensive, while steel bullets are considered highly regulated armor piercing ammunition, said Nick Grasso of the Federated Rhode Island Sportsmen’s Clubs Inc.  

“There’s really no suitable alternative,” he said.

The Department of Environmental Management (DEM) also questioned the bill. Scott Marshall, DEM’s state veterinarian, said the agency is concerned that non-toxic ammunition will maim animals. “We think there is potential for more wounding from this inferior ammunition than from possible toxicity if they were ingested," he said.

Marshall said DEM would like to see a study showing the risks of lead ammunition used in upland hunting in Rhode Island. The department also lacks money for a provision of the bill that would designate the DEM to run a coupon system to give hunters a discount for non-toxic ammunition.

On its website the National Rifle Association (NRA) called the Rhode Island bill “nothing more than a backdoor attempt to target hunters and shooters.” At the April 17 hearing, Derek Gomes, an NRA lobbyist, said lead used in ammunition is unlike lead found in paint chips and toys. “That lead is different, so it’s absorbed different," he said.

Meredith Bird, president of the Wildlife Rehabilitation Association of Rhode Island, said she treats cats that have ingested pellets of lead ammunition and animals shot by lead ammo. A bottle of medication to treat an animal poisoned by lead costs $800, she said, noting that there is no money to study the impacts of lead ammo in Rhode Island. “I’ve looked at tons of studies looking at lead," she said. "I don’t know much about it; I know when the animals are coming in and dying from it.”

Gary Block, a veterinarian and co-owner of Ocean State Veterinary Specialists, said lead is especially dangerous to children. Game meat donated to food banks can contain lead. A ban on lead ammunition, he said, “seems like a small sacrifice for gun owners when compared to the potential benefits to animals and human health and the ability to decrease lead in the environment."

At the end of the hearing, Rep. Art Handy, D-Cranston, and other supporters of the bill suggested that it would likely need to be vetted, rewritten and submitted later in the legislative session or next year.

The bill was held for further study. The Senate bill (S2628) hasn't yet been scheduled a hearing.