Poisonous Pastime – Section One: Lead, Environmental Pollution, and Health Hazards

“Until fairly recent years, most shooters wore no hearing protection. As a result, most shooters over 40 have some hearing loss. For many, it is a very significant and noticeable hearing loss. Most of us didn’t know how much damage we were incrementally inflicting on ourselves. There was little or no warning about the danger to our health years ago. The same is true with the lead problem. We fired round after round, match after match, without realizing what lead could do to us.”
—Joseph P. Tartaro, Second Amendment Foundation news release, January 10, 1998 

Shooting ranges are of two basic types. Indoor ranges are usually restricted to the use of handguns or lower caliber rifles—such as the .22s used by many school rifle teams—shooting at relatively short range. Outdoor ranges allow use of a wider variety of long guns: shotguns for skeet, trap, and “sporting clays,”e and higher-powered rifles for target shooting at longer ranges. 

Both types of ranges share a common problem—lead. Most ammunition used at ranges is made of lead. Although no records on ammunition production are kept in the United States, it has been estimated that between 400 and 600 tons of lead are used each day to make bullets and “a high proportion of it is left to clutter up shooting ranges.”4 It is no wonder, then, that numerous studies—since at least the 1970s—have documented that outdoor shooting ranges are major sources of lead pollution in the environment, and that indoor shooting ranges are significant sources of lead poisoning among people who use them.f

The danger of lead poisoning extends not only to those who shoot in indoor firing ranges. It also reaches the shooters’ families (especially children), and third parties, such as construction workers whose jobs bring them into contact with shooting ranges, and persons who share the building, such as children in a school in which a range is located. 

Smith & Wesson Catalog, 1992, pp. 29, 30

Lead poisoning has long been known to cause terribly debilitating and sometimes fatal effects on one’s body. But there is a growing body of evidence that the neurological damage that lead causes also helps cause violent criminal behavior, perhaps even “rampage” killings.5 Ironically, overexposure to lead at shooting ranges may therefore cause some violent gun crime. 

Lawsuits and regulatory action already have closed some shooting ranges because of the health risks and environmental pollution problems they pose.6 Nevertheless, many ranges continue to operate as silent hazards, with little or no health and environmental protection measures. Their owners and operators are either ignorant of the effects of their businesses, or simply hoping that their users, their neighbors, and their employees will remain ignorant of the threat to their health. 

Lead—An Extraordinarily Toxic Element

Effects on Human Beings. Lead is a highly potent toxic element that attacks many different body organs and systems, including the blood-forming, nervous, urinary, and reproductive systems.7 It is especially dangerous to fetuses and young children. Unlike other metals such as zinc or iron, lead has no known useful function in the body. Lead taken in large enough doses can cause brain damage—leading to seizures, coma, and death in a matter of days. Although the good news is that such short-term, extreme overdoses are rare, the bad news is that chronic overexposure to lower levels of lead simply causes these and other serious health impairments to develop over a longer period of time. 

Human beings can be exposed to lead from breathing air, drinking water, eating food, or ingesting dust or soil that contains lead dust or particles of lead. The effects of lead are the same no matter how it gets into the body, although how the body processes lead ingested in different ways varies. For example, most of the lead inhaled into the lungs moves into the blood stream, where it is circulated throughout the body and stored in various body organs, tissues, and bone. On the other hand, very little lead that is swallowed by adults enters the blood stream. However, much more lead that is swallowed by children enters the bloodstream than in adults, and children are much more prone to this form of ingestion. 

Although some of the lead in the bloodstream is filtered out and excreted from the body, the remainder is stored, most of it in bone but some also in soft tissues. The level of this stored lead increases with chronic exposure. The victim may not be aware of it, since there is often no “bright line” at which obvious symptoms appear,g but he or she is slowly being poisoned, suffering long-term, chronic, and irreversible damage. 

The effects of lead poisoning include: damage to the brain and central nervous system; kidney disease; high blood pressure; anemia; and damage to the reproductive system, including decreased sex drive, abnormal menstrual periods, impotence, premature ejaculation, sterility, reduction in number of sperm cells, and damage to sperm cells resulting in birth defects, miscarriage, and stillbirth. 

Effects on women and children. Lead is particularly harmful to the rapidly developing brains and nervous systems of fetuses and young children. This harm has been well-studied in actual human cases, not mere theoretical calculations, animal studies, or academic conjecture.8

Most strikingly, the level of lead known to be toxic to children has shifted downward since the 1970s as health investigators have developed more sensitive instruments and better study designs. Also, children are at a higher risk because they normally have more hand-to-mouth activity than adults (thus ingesting lead-contaminated dust, for example) and because their bodies absorb lead more readily than adult bodies. Because multiple low-level lead input can result in significant overexposure, it is often difficult to pinpoint all the sources contributing to a given child’s overexposure. Contaminated house dust is known to be a major source. “Take-home” exposure to children also results when adults launder contaminated clothing with the rest of the family’s wash, track in dust, or bring contaminated materials home. 

Unfortunately, like adults, most lead-poisoned children do not exhibit obvious symptoms. Their protection hinges on vigilant parents and aggressive public health authorities. Nevertheless, these poisoned children suffer a particular harm that will handicap them for life—lowered intelligence. A number of studies have shown conclusively that children’s IQ scores are inversely related to lead exposure. Moreover, the decrease in IQ scores has a direct and serious practical impact: a substantial increase in the number of children with severe intellectual deficits and a decrease in children with superior skills. 

“It makes you stupid,” in the words of one lead testing expert, and the damage is irreversible.9

Catalog, Browning Arms Company, 1997

These effects on children and fetuses are logically of grave concern to women who are, or plan to become, mothers. In addition to the fertility problems described in the preceding section, it is known that lead crosses the placental barrier and puts developing fetuses at severe risk. Children born of parents either of whom were exposed to excess lead levels are more likely to have birth defects, mental retardation, behavioral disorders, or die within their first year.10

Lead Poisoning and Criminal Behavior. Perhaps the most ironic and problematic concern of lead poisoning in the context of firearms is a growing body of evidence that lead poisoning, particularly in childhood, may be a cause of violent criminal behavior in some individuals.11 The point of this body of evidence is not that every person exposed to lead becomes a violent criminal, any more than every smoker contracts lung cancer. Rather it is that there is a scientifically demonstrable relationship between lead poisoning and criminal behavior, just as there is between smoking and lung cancer.12

For example, Dr. Deborah Denno, a sociologist and professor at Fordham Law School, conducted a comprehensive, landmark study of the relationship between lead and violence among young boys.13 “Lead had its own independent effect on delinquency and adult criminality, separate from IQ,” said Dr. Denno.14

Dr. Herbert L. Needleman, a psychiatrist at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, conducted another study of 301 boys in public school and reached similar findings.15 Dr. Needleman explained the connection this way: 

I’m not saying that lead exposure is the cause of delinquency. It is a cause and one with the biggest handle to prevention. Lead is a brain poison that interferes with the ability to restrain impulses. It’s a life experience which gets into biology and increases a child’s risk for doing bad things.16

Even if the poisoning and original misbehavior may happen in childhood, its effects often continue into adulthood.17 Indeed, at least one researcher has suggested that lead poisoning may have contributed to James Huberty’s 1984 shooting rampage at a McDonald’s restaurant in California, and linked Huberty’s high lead levels in his blood to his handling guns and visiting shooting ranges.18 Clearly, there is substantial cause to conduct further research into links between lead poisoning associated with firearms and rampage killings. 

Effects on Wildlife. Lead has devastating effects on wildlife that mistake lead shotgun pellets for food or grit and ingest it. Ducks and geese, for example, “deliberately swallow small bits of stone and gravel to help grind up food in their gizzards.”19 When this grit contains lead, the result is lead poisoning and a slow and agonizing death. “You see them walking with drooping wings and they can’t fly,” an Illinois veterinarian said recently. “It really is a terrible death because it’s very slow and gradual.”20

Waterfowl have been most directly impacted historically—from 1.5 to 2.5 million died every year from lead poisoning until 1991, when the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service banned use of lead shot for hunting them. But other avian species, ranging from songbirds to bald eagles, are also poisoned by ingesting lead shot directly or in their prey.21 In any case, the lead shot ban does not extend to other forms of hunting or to target shooting. In addition, in 1997 a source in the ammunition industry said that about 20 percent of American hunters still use lead in defiance of the ban—the result is that about 300,000 ducks and geese are still poisoned each year by lead shot.22

Sources of Lead at Shooting Ranges

Exposure to lead poisoning in indoor firing ranges comes primarily from inhaling lead particles suspended in the air in the range (although it may also be ingested orally, with contaminated food for example). These particles come principally from ignition of the primer, which contains lead styphnate,h from microscopic lead particles scraped off the bullet as it passes through the gun barrel, and from lead dust created when the bullet strikes the target or the backstop behind the target.23

Pollution from outdoor ranges comes primarily from spent shotgun pellets and rifle bullets, including materials fired into backstops, called “berms,” or out over waterways. According to Sports Afield, “the quantity of recreational lead deposited in the environment is enormous. For example, at some trap and skeet ranges, lead shot densities of 1.5 billion pellets per acre have been recorded. That’s 334 pellets in every square foot.”24 (This massive pollution at shooting ranges is entirely separate from another question, posed by a U.S. Forest Service official at a gun industry shooting range symposium, of “where the lead is going for the millions of shooters who currently are not using established ranges,” but are instead shooting on open public land.25

Another source of airborne lead for some range shooters is casting their own lead bullets by pouring molten lead into molds of the appropriate size for the caliber bullet desired. Although beyond the scope of this study, a number of sources warn that this practice can cause serious lead poisoning.26 Melting lead produces a fume which can remain airborne for several hours, is easily inhaled, and can contaminate surfaces.27 The director of a New Hampshire occupational health center said some of the worst cases of lead poisoning he has seen have been in people who make their own bullets, and warned of “an amazing lack of awareness” of the danger. “That’s a wonderful way to poison not only yourself but members of your family,” said another state health official.28

Indoor Shooting Ranges

Indoor shooting ranges have been identified as serious lead poisoners since at least the mid-1970s, documented in a string of studies by public health authorities.29 Although an official of a major shooting range supply company attacked the early warnings as “lead-intoxication hysteria” in a 1976 issue of The Police Chief magazine,30 no serious challenge has been mounted to the growing body of science underlying the indisputable fact that lead poisoning is a serious threat to health at indoor shooting ranges.i

An NRA official speaking in 1990 said, “Lead contamination directly contributed to closing hundreds of indoor ranges in the last 20 years.”31 Nevertheless, indoor shooting ranges continue to appear regularly in public health records and news stories as major offenders for lead poisoning. For example, the California Department of Health Services reported that, among commercial industries, indoor firing ranges had the largest number of lead poisoning cases as recently as 1993 and 1994.32 Problems with lead overexposure also continue to be regularly seen at law enforcement firing ranges33 and at both active and abandoned firing ranges located within school buildings. But most privately operated firing ranges (shooting clubs, for example) are completely unregulated by public health authorities, even though they present major health problems for their staff and users. 

Guns & Ammo, April 2001, p. 81

It should also be noted that most indoor shooting ranges, like any small business dealing with toxic materials, are subject to a wide range of state and local health and safety regulations, such as special health and safety provisions of building codes, and special procedures for containing and cleaning up lead waste (such as being sure that plumbing connections do not discharge lead waste into waters).34

A wide fan of risk. The risk of lead poisoning begins most acutely with firearm instructors, other range employees, and individual shooters, all of whom may inhale lead dust or fumes while shooting or engaging in other activities such as cleaning firearms, handling spent casings, or cleaning bullet traps and the range itself.35 The risk then fans out widely over a surprising range of third parties who are not participants in the “shooting sports.” 

Risk to direct participants. It is logical that, as even the pro-gun Second Amendment Foundation warns, “the people at the highest risk are those with the greatest and most consistent exposure to the ambient lead—range officers, coaches, and those attempting to remove lead from a range without proper safety gear and equipment.”36

Although the greater part of the indoor firing range lead problem appears to be chronic exposure over time, there are several reported cases of catastrophic effects due to intensive short-term exposure. For example, a police firearms instructor in New Hampshire died in his sleep of acute respiratory failure following exposure to lead dust and gases during a five-day training course at an indoor firing range.37 At least one shooting range employee in the same state was also diagnosed as having suffered a chronic lung disease from a single day’s intensive exposure. The employee cleaned up lead dust deposits wearing only a painter’s mask, after members of a security firm spent a day of heavy shooting at the range.38

Maintenance employees are at especially high risk if proper procedures are not followed. The highest blood lead levels ever recorded by the Baltimore City Health Department (as of 1988) were in an attendant who regularly swept up in an amusement park shooting gallery.39 A 17-year-old part-time employee at an indoor rifle range developed abdominal pain within one month’s employment, and vomiting, severe abdominal pain, and constipation after five months.40 Unfortunately, as California authorities have observed, “many ranges contract out range cleanup to other firms that may be even less aware of the potential for lead poisoning in this industry.”41

Standard users of indoor shooting ranges are also at risk. Officials at the California Occupational Lead Poisoning Prevention Program currently report seeing elevated blood lead levels “among recreational and competitive shooters.”42 A doctor at Boston’s Children’s Hospital reported in 1999 the cases of four adolescent girls with elevated lead blood levels, all of whom were competitive shooters at an indoor firing range.43 A public health doctor in London reported in 1994 that three out of four regular shooters at a Manchester range had lead blood levels so high that six-month monitoring of their blood levels would have been required had the exposure resulted from working in industry.44

Cover, Insights, January 1998

A landmark study in Colorado dramatically demonstrated the risks to indoor range shooters. After getting frequent reports of elevated lead blood levels from firing range employees or users, Colorado public health officials tracked 17 members of a law enforcement trainee class during and after a three-month period of firearm instruction at a state-owned indoor firing range.45 Despite the fact that a new ventilation system was installed early in the study, the researchers found levels of lead in the range’s air 40 times those set in the applicable federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) safety standard. According to a study author, those levels were low compared to other indoor ranges examined by Colorado public health officials. None of the 17 trainees had elevated blood levels before the class, but 15 had elevated levels after the training, eight of those above the OSHA threshold requiring medical monitoring. 

Private firing ranges in Colorado all refused requests by the researchers to test blood levels of their patrons. But the researchers concluded that “frequent users would be at risk for developing elevated blood lead levels and adverse health effects from the lead exposure.”46

Risk to families and other third party nonparticipants. Because lead dust settles on clothing, shoes, and accessories worn or used at the range, the families of persons who work at or use firing ranges are also subject to “take-home” exposure to lead dust.47 This can cause secondary lead poisoning, particularly in children.48

This risk may not be obvious, but it is no less real—shooters can even contaminate their children’s clothing by washing them together with the clothes they wore to the range. “If you take your clothing home, you actually contaminate the family clothing when you wash it (together),” a New Hampshire police captain and range instructor warned.49

A 1996 National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) lead health hazard evaluation of firing range activities at the FBI Academy’s Firearms Training Unit found significantly higher levels of lead in the carpets of the dormitory rooms of FBI students as compared to the rooms of nonstudents. The study concluded, “FBI students may be contaminating their living quarters with lead,” and that “a potential problem of ‘take-home’ lead exposure of families of firearms instructors was found.”50

Persons who spend time in the same building in which a firing range is located will be exposed to lead dust from the range unless special precautions are taken. These include totally isolating the range’s ventilation system from the rest of the building and ensuring a negative air pressure in the range so that lead dust does not escape into adjacent offices or work areas, in which a positive air pressure should be maintained to keep lead dust out.51 In any case, lead residue from inadequately designed old ranges may still be found in building air ducts long after the range has been retired.52 This risk is especially acute in the case of firing ranges located within schools, a topic addressed in more detail below. 

Air exhausted from an indoor shooting range can also threaten third parties. For example, a day-care center in Clearwater, Florida, was forced to close and the children were required to have blood tests after it was discovered that a neighboring indoor shooting range was venting lead-contaminated air into the center’s playground area. Lead levels just outside the range’s exhaust fan were found to be 8,000 times higher than the acceptable level set by the Pinellas County’s Department of Environmental Management, and those in the soil near the border between the range and the daycare center were about 40 times the acceptable level. The proprietor of the private shooting range was reported to be “shocked” by the revelation, arguing that the ventilation system had been inspected by health officials 10 years earlier when the range was built.53 (As is described in more detail below, poor maintenance of such ventilation systems is a major problem for indoor ranges.) 

Construction employees who work on firing ranges may also be exposed to lead contamination, especially since they may not be aware of the danger when working in older buildings. California health officials have seen “some serious lead poisoning cases among construction employees engaged in demolition of a firing range, as well as among these employees’ children.”54

Exposure of Children at Indoor School Ranges. Given the vast amount of effort devoted to protecting children from lead in paint in recent decades, it may come as a shock to parents to learn that schools all over the country are exposing children to lead contamination from indoor firing ranges.j Yet using shooting ranges to get children and youth involved in the “shooting sports” is an integral part of the gun industry’s survival strategy, described in more detail in Appendix A. The National Rifle Association supports the gun industry’s overall range survival strategy by helping to underwrite school shooting ranges. In Illinois alone, for example, the NRA increased grants for school shooting ranges from $7,844 in 1995 to more than $23,750 in 1998.55

Cover, Insights, April 1996

Unfortunately, many school administrators appear to be oblivious to the threat that lead from shooting ranges presents to the health of the children under their care—until after a problem is discovered. For example, officials in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, learned of lead contamination at six high school shooting ranges only after one student had a routine blood test unrelated to the shooting program and was found to have elevated lead levels. When blood tests were given to other students in the program, they were also found to have elevated blood lead levels. As a result, the rifle ranges were closed.56

Similarly, lead contamination at an indoor shooting range in the basement of an elementary school in Lynbrook, New York, was discovered only after a parent raised the issue of lead contamination with the school superintendent. “I decided, innocently, to have an air test, expecting to be able to stand up and say the range had a clean bill of health,” said the school official. “I got the results and was shocked. I made the decision to close the school, shut down the range and begin the cleanup.”57 The revelation prompted state officials to advise all schools with such ranges to have similar tests done, and two other schools with firing ranges were subsequently temporarily closed.58

Growing public concern with gun violence and an especial distaste for the mix of firearms in schools after such tragedies as the shootings at Columbine High School in 1999 have forced the closing of some school shooting ranges.59A New Jersey school board shut down an indoor range that had been inconspicuously operated by an adult gun club under an elementary school after a group of boy scouts wandered into the range from the school gym.60 Although the danger of exposing elementary age children to lead has been well documented by public health experts, range supporters insist on maintaining ranges in schools. 

But even after school ranges have been shut down, they may continue to poison students. For example, when the Louisville, Kentucky, school system tested for lead at sites in 20 schools slated for renovation, it found lead contamination at a school rifle range left over from an old ROTC program that had been shut down years earlier.61

Bad management, poor facilities. The primary causes of the dismal record of shooting ranges in lead contamination and other health matters are ignorance, bad or indifferent management, and antiquated facilities. 

These problems are no secret within the gun industry. For example, the Boston-based Strategic Planning Institute found in a recent report outlining a gun industry survival strategy for the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF) that “a large majority of shooting facilities in the country are not professionally managed, commercial operations.”62 Similarly, a major supplier of shooting range equipment, Caswell International Corp., was reported in 1989 by the NRA’s American Rifleman magazine to have found that “a lot of people trying to get in on a shoestring” in the shooting range market were “cutting corners on costs that resulted in substandard ranges in terms of safety, environmental concerns and cleanliness.”63 An engineering consulting firm specializing in shooting ranges notes in its promotional materials that the increased attention to lead contamination and human health exposure “has put range owners and operators into areas outside of their expertise.”64

Even the most well-designed indoor range demands constant and sometimes expensive attention in order to keep delicately balanced air filtration systems working effectively. 

FrontPage Magazine web site at www.frontpagemag.com, downloaded April 20, 2001

Outdoor Shooting Ranges

Just as shooters at indoor ranges fired away for decades ignorant of the public health risks, so have outdoor range shooters poured millions of tons of lead downrange, ignorant (or heedless) of the damage they have been inflicting on the environment. Although human lead poisoning is less of a problem at outdoor ranges, negative effects on the environment are far greater. Lead bullets and shot used in outdoor shooting ranges present at least three dangers to the environment: 

  • poisoning of wildlife, especially waterfowl, that ingest lead pellets;

  • contamination of ground water, poisoning wells and other water sources; and,

  • contamination of wetlands or waterways into which lead falls. 

Shotgun shell casing, wads, and assorted packaging materials can also contain lead, chemicals, and other materials potentially harmful to the environment.65 For example, certain polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons found in clay targets are said to be known carcinogens.66 (It is worth noting that shotgun shooters rejected a biodegradable clay target Winchester tried to market because it discharged white smoke when hit rather than the black smoke they were used to.)67

Dealing with these problems is complicated by the esoteric nature of the state and federal laws and regulations protecting the environment.k Several key issues of federal environmental law have been roughly focused in a handful of shooting range cases litigated to conclusion. But the NSSF notes that the relatively low number of reported law cases is not a true measure of the activity going on because “many shooting range cases are resolved in the early stages of litigation through consent orders under which the ranges agree to close down and perform further environmental investigations and cleanup at the range.”68

Three federal laws have been found to be especially relevant to outdoor shooting ranges: the Clean Water Act (CWA),l the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA),m and the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA or “Superfund”).n Other federal laws may apply to a particular case, and state protections may be more stringent than the applicable federal laws. 

The Clean Water Act (CWA)

The Clean Water Act makes it unlawful for any person to discharge “pollutants” from any “point source” into waters of the United States without obtaining a permit, called a “National Pollution Discharge Elimination System” (NPDES) permit. 

Two leading federal cases have held that lead shot and target debris (shattered clay pigeons) are “pollutants,” and the trap shooting stations at shooting ranges are “point sources.” Therefore, any range from which patrons shoot out over “Waters of the United States” must have an NPDES permit. This is a stringent requirement because “Waters of the United States” is broadly defined to include virtually all rivers, streams, lakes, ponds, drainage-ways, wetlands, and similar features, even those on private property, and it appears that, at least to date, no NPDES permit has ever been issued to a shooting range.69

Long Island Soundkeeper Fund, Inc. v. New York Athletic Clubo involved a private trap shooting range at which spring launchers were used to toss clay targets out over Long Island Sound. Shooters fired at the clay targets from concrete platforms. Acting on a lawsuit brought by two public interest groups interested in preserving the Long Island Sound environment, the court ruled that “shot and target debris” generated by the shooting range constituted pollutants, and that the range was a point source. It is noteworthy that the court ruled that even though the club had switched to the use of steel shot, the shot was nevertheless a pollutant for purposes of the CWA. The club elected to discontinue the discharge rather than seek a permit.70

Stone v. Naperville Park District settled a dispute over a trap-shooting range in Naperville, Illinois.p The range was reported to have dumped as much as 230 tons of lead over 50 years of use on a small patch of land in a park near a high school.71 The controversy began when neighbors became concerned about possible lead contamination of ground water and wells. Although state officials indicated they would allow the range to continue operation, federal officials expressed concern about lead pollution, especially noting two ponds on the site.72 Eventually the court ruled, consistent with the New York Athletic Club case, that the range’s operations fell under the CWA and barred shooting until an NPDES permit was obtained. Although city and park officials have pressed for a permit, it seems clear that it will not be issued, certainly if lead shot is used.73

It is almost certain that many other shooting ranges across the country are operating without permits required by the CWA. This is particularly true when the shooting range is located on or near wetlands or waters such as rivers or creeks, or where the range allows the natural flow of rain or runoff to carry lead contaminants into such waters or even into groundwater.74

The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA)

RCRA established a “cradle to grave” regulatory scheme for the treatment, storage, and disposal of solid and hazardous wastes. The leading federal case in the field is Connecticut Coastal Fishermen’s Association v. Remington Arms Co., Inc. The first such suit against a private range, it resulted in the closing of the Lordship Gun Club in Stratford, Connecticut, operated by Remington Arms Company.75

The Lordship trap and skeet range was located on Long Island Sound, directly across the mouth of the Housatonic River from two wildlife refuges. According to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, “After nearly 70 years of use, close to 2,400 tons of lead shot (5 million pounds) and 11 million pounds of clay target fragments were deposited on land around the club and in the adjacent waters of Long Island Sound.”76 A 1987 study documented acute lead poisoning in 15 of 28 black ducks captured in the area. 

Concerned about the effects of the range’s operations, the Connecticut Coastal Fisherman’s Association filed a lawsuit against the range, citing the CWA and RCRA. The case eventually wound up in the Second Circuit Court of Appeals which made three significant rulings: 

  • The CWA complaint was moot because the range had suspended operations and was unlikely to resume. In short, past violations will not support a CWA suit so long as it appears that operations have been permanently suspended.

  • Under EPA’s regulations and interpretations, shooting range operations do not constitute “discarding” a hazardous waste, and therefore do not require a permit.

  • However, the deposited lead and potential target debris do constitute hazardous solid wastes that present a substantial threat to the environment. The range was therefore subject to another provision of RCRA requiring remediation and cleanup, even though the range had ceased operations. 

As a result of this ruling, the range closed and Remington agreed to clean up both the lead and clay target waste. 

According to NSSF, several other ranges have been charged with violating CWA and RCRA, but most either went out of business, settled out of court, changed their shooting direction, or switched to non-toxic shot.77

Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA or “Superfund”)

One of the peculiarities of these laws, as interpreted by the EPA, is that so long as a range is being used, the lead and other toxic materials it dumps into the environment are not considered as being discarded or abandoned. Shooting ranges are therefore not required to get the permits that, say, a landfill or toxic dump would be required to have if it wished to deposit the same material. 

However, a range that is closed or abandoned triggers specific liabilities for lead and other toxic materials deposited on the land during shooting operations, since it is then considered to be “abandoned waste.”78 The reported transport of lead waste to landfill dump sites by some range operators also could subject them to any future “superfund” liabilities of the disposal sites, according to the NRA’s range development manager.79

Cleanup costs can be substantial: New York City reportedly paid a Canadian company $25 million to clean up a police shooting range in the Bronx. Company officials found the prospects of such work in the United States “promising,” estimating that there were about 28,000 such potential cleanup sites in the country.80 The cost of cleaning up abandoned ranges often comes as a shocking surprise to new owners or to government units that operate or sometimes inherit the property in question. In some cases, governmental units simply continue the fiction that the abandoned range is still “in service” in order to avoid paying the costs. The following are representative examples of cleanup cases: 

  • As part of a consent decree, current and past owners of a former Playboy Club property in Wisconsin agreed to pay the U.S. government $1,000,000 in cleanup costs for contamination from a trap and skeet shooting range. The contamination at the abandoned site was discovered after 200 geese died of lead poisoning. The federal government was reported to have spent $1.75 million for cleanup as of the time of the agreement.81

  • The State of Massachusetts inherited a cleanup problem when it acquired a former resort that included a skeet shooting range.82

  • Port Richey, Florida, was hit with a $50,000 cleanup bill after it learned that a children’s play area called Totsville had been designed and built by a well-meaning volunteer on a site that had formerly been a city firing range.83

  • Port Salerno, Florida, was stuck with a $400,000 cleanup bill when tests of a proposed development site revealed contamination from an abandoned shooting range formerly used by the sheriff’s office.84

  • Crystal River, Florida, dodged cleanup costs by simply fencing off a shooting range area, keeping it in limbo between its former use as a pistol range and any new use. Should the city decide to make use of the parcel, which one council member compared to an abandoned nuclear site, it would have to pay for the cleanup.85

  • Brea, California, was sued by the owner of a parcel of land it leased for use as a firing range. The owner complained that the property lost value and that 165 tons of soil had to be removed as a result of lead contamination after 25 years of use.86

  • Bay Village, Ohio, city officials abandoned cleanup plans when they saw a price tag of $600,000 to clean up an estimated 150 tons of lead blasted into Lake Erie over several decades by a private gun club. The federal EPA looked the other way. “Why invite trouble?” said one city official, who admitted he was aware of the court ruling in the similar Connecticut Coastal Fishermen’s Association case.87

These and other abandoned range cases pose a serious question for communities with existing or newly proposed range operations: who will pay the cleanup bill when the shooters have moved on?88

National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA)

The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) established a national scheme to control and minimize the impact that federal government actions—including tax-subsidized activities—have on the environment. Prominent among these is the requirement that an environmental impact statement (EIS) be prepared for any major federal action that might significantly affect the quality of the human environment.89 No one appears yet to have explored whether, given the extensive federal assistance extended to the gun industry for its shooting range programs, certain federal agencies—such as the Fish & Wildlife Service—should be required to develop such plans. 

Other Major Pollution Sites 

A number of other shooting range environmental horror stories can be found in news reports from all over the country. The following are a few representative examples: 

  • Westchester County, New York, entered into a consent decree with the EPA to clean up contamination from lead and targets at its Sportsmen’s Center, located next to an elementary school. EPA sued the county under the imminent hazard provision of RCRA.90 The case prompted NSSF executive Bob Delfay to complain, “Lead is a four-letter word these days.”91

  • Illinois environmental officials got a toxic double whammy when it turned out that the backstop of a rifle range originally built for the 1959 Pan American Games was made of asbestos waste. In addition to lead pollution problems, officials learned that the asbestos had simply been bulldozed into Lake Michigan, then later recycled onto a public beach as part of dredging operations.92

  • A former skeet shooting range in Delaware earned the title “Harbeson Dead Swan Site” when it was designated a federal Superfund cleanup site after 41 dead black-billed tundra swans, victims of lead poisoning, were found by two bird watchers. The kill was reportedly one of the highest ever recorded for tundra swans. Federal taxpayers paid for the estimated $200,000 cleanup cost. The EPA originally tried to hide ownership of the site after a meeting with the owners was arranged by Senator Joseph Biden (D-DE), but relented under media pressure.93 Taxpayers were also slated to pay the $250,000 cleanup costs at another private skeet-shooting range on Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge in Delaware. “[T]he club doesn’t have the money,” the organization’s treasurer said. “I’m sure it would bankrupt us.”94


e) Skeet, trap, and sporting clays are variants of an activity in which a circular disc is hurled, usually mechanically, simulating the flight of a game bird within sight of the shooter, who is armed with a shotgun. The object is to react quickly and accurately enough to hit and shatter the disc, sometimes called a “clay pigeon,” with shotgun pellets.

f) The U.S. military was reported to have closed more than 700 firing ranges as of August 1999 due to lead contamination, and taken major steps to clean up and prevent further contamination at others. “Army shoots for safe environment with tungsten bullets,” American Metal Market, August 26, 1999, 4. Although beyond the scope of this study, the military’s approach contrasts with the head-in-the-sand attitude of many civilian range owners and operators.

g) Many symptoms of chronic overexposure are subtle. They include loss of appetite, metallic taste in the mouth, anxiety, constipation, nausea, pallor, excessive tiredness, weakness, insomnia, headache, nervous irritability, muscle and joint pain or soreness, fine tremors, numbness, dizziness, hyperactivity, and colic.

h) Each round of ammunition is composed of four parts: (1) a bullet, or pellets in the case of a shotgun round, seated in (2) a cylindrical shell casing (or case), within which is (3) a charge of gunpowder, and (4) a primer, seated in the base of the case. The firing pin strikes the primer, made of a highly explosive compound, which explodes and in turn ignites the gunpowder. The burning gunpowder creates gas pressure which expels the bullet or pellets from the casing and through the barrel of the gun.

i) Indoor firing ranges also present problems of exposure to noxious gases such as carbon monoxide and oxides of nitrogen. See, e.g., T. Anania and J. Seta, Lead Exposure and Design Considerations for Indoor Firing Ranges(Springfield, VA: National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, 1975); Brian O’Rourke, “Indoor firing range ventilation system,” Heating, Piping, Air Conditioning (October 1992), p. 77.

j) About 500 schools nationwide are reported to have rifle teams, although it is not known how many of them use indoor ranges. Frank Eltman, “School rifle teams in spotlight amid spate of school shootings,” The Associated Press State & Local Wire, 22 November 1999.

k) The National Shooting Sports Foundation advises its members: “Should a range manager be notified that the range may face legal or regulatory action involving environmental issues, they should immediately notify or obtain legal counsel. Because environmental laws and regulations are extremely complex, it is often advisable to enlist the aid of counsel with specific experience in environmental law, particularly with experience in defending shooting ranges.” National Shooting Sports Foundation, Environmental Aspects of Construction and Management of Outdoor Shooting Ranges (Newtown, CT: NSSF, 1997), I-4 (emphasis in original).

l) 33 US Code, Sec. 1251, et seq.

m) 42 US Code, Sec. 6901, et seq.

n) 42 US Code, Sec. 9601, et seq.

o) 1996 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 3383 (SDNY 1996).

p) 38 F. Supp2d 651, 1999 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 1828 (NDIL 1999).

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