For the second time in six years, a battle is unfolding in the California Legislature over the question of whether hunters should be prohibited from using traditional, lead ammunition and be required instead to shoot at deer and other game animals with bullets made of less toxic metals such as copper.
In 2007, proponents of a lead-ammunition ban prevailed with the passage of a bill by former Assemblyman Pedro Nava that barred the use of lead bullets when hunting in the known range of the California condor, an imperiled species that in the wild is prone to lead poisoning.
Since July 1, 2008, hunters also have been barred from using lead ammunition in a large swath of the state that includes the coastal mountain range and covers all of Monterey, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara and Ventura counties.
This time, the stakes are larger. Legislation (AB 711) already approved by the Assembly and awaiting action in the Senate, would extend the ban to cover the entire state. If the bill becomes law, California would become the first state to bar lead ammunition in hunting. It would continue to be legal to use lead bullets at shooting ranges.
The proposal has touched off a spirited debate that pits environmental and animal rights groups on one side, the firearms industry and sportsmen's groups on the other, and individual hunters on both sides of the issue..
Wildlife advocates are again arguing that the ban is necessary to protect condors from the sometimes fatal effects of eating carcasses and gut piles that have been riddled with fragments that permeate the bodies of animals that have been shot with lead bullets.
Yet, five years later after the ban, initial testing has shown no measurable reduction in condor lead poisoning. A more comprehensive study is expected to be released in the fall.
The firearms industry and sportsman's groups are again arguing that a ban would force hunters to either give up their sport or to hunt only in other states.
Yet, records from the state Department of Fish and Wildlife show that there has actually been an increase in the number of deer tags issued since the limited prohibition on lead ammunition was implemented -- 26,104 were sold the year before the ban took effect, and 27,453 were sold four years later.
Assemblyman Anthony Rendon, D-Lakewood, said opponents are mischaracterizing his bill.
''It's not about hunting," he said. "It's really just a common-sense thing about environmental and human health."
Proponents say it's time for the state to remove one of the last major sources of a highly toxic material from the environment-- to protect wildlife and humans alike.
The federal Centers for Disease Control reports that there is no safe exposure level for lead in humans. Its use has been banned in gasoline, paint, children's toys and other consumer products. In addition, hunters of ducks and other waterfowl have for decades been barred nationally from using lead shot, because of the dangers of lead contamination in water.
''We know that the spreading of lead shot and lead bullets throughout California's wild lands is not a good idea -- it's just not a good idea," said Richard Rogers, owner of a Camarillo sod farm and vice president of the California Fish and Wildlife Commission.
Opponents, however, challenge scientific claims about the health dangers of lead ammunition.
Charles Cunningham, the NRA director of state and local affairs, asserted in an April letter to lawmakers that there is a fundamental difference between the "elemental" lead in ammunition and the "metallic" lead that was previously found in paint. The key difference, he writes, is that the elemental lead does not dissolve in the stomach and is not then absorbed into the bloodstream.
Donald Smith, a professor of environmental toxicology at UC Santa Cruz, called the NRA's argument misleading at best. He said the ingestion of a bullet fragment the size of a few grains of sand "is way more than is required to induce severe lead poisoning.