The Government must impose tougher regulations on indoor firing ranges to keep shooters and their families safe from lead poisoning, says a public health researcher at the University of Otago, Wellington.
Senior Research Fellow Dr Marie Russell says the Arms Legislation Bill, which was before Parliament and is now awaiting the end of the lockdown, should include a requirement for regional public health authorities as well as the police to visit and inspect indoor firing ranges.
“Shooters can be exposed to lead through the use of lead in ammunition or while casting lead bullets or reloading bullets with lead. Other members of the household can also be exposed to lead dust and particles, for example, while laundering a shooter’s clothes after a session at the range,” she says.
There is no known safe level of exposure to lead, according to the World Health Organization. Currently, in New Zealand, a blood lead level of more than 0.48 micromoles per litre must be notified to the local medical officer of health – but the Government has considered reducing this to 0.24 micromoles per litre.
Dr Russell says lead exposure is particularly dangerous for children and can, for example, cause intellectual impairment at higher levels. In adults, low levels of lead exposure can cause fatigue and mood disorders, while higher levels affect blood, kidneys, bones, heart and reproductive systems. In pregnant women, lead exposure can cause miscarriage or stillbirth.
“In the five years between 2014 and 2018, 88 firearms-related lead poisonings were reported. Of these, 79 people were users of indoor firing ranges. The real impact is almost certainly higher.”
Dr Russell says most gun users are never tested for lead exposure. They may have no symptoms at all, or experience common symptoms like fatigue or depression.
“Doctors may not think to order a test for lead, unless they are aware that their patient is a shooter.”
Dr Russell says environmental contamination from lead on firing ranges is also a concern.
“While regional councils are responsible for investigating possible environmental contamination from firing ranges, many have no idea even how many firing ranges operate in their area.”
Dr Russell is disappointed by claims from the Council of Licensed Firearms Owners that measures to regulate firing ranges are a threat to gun clubs.
“Firing ranges and clubs have been inadequately regulated for far too long,” she says. “The Council of Licensed Firearms Owners and the rest of the gun lobby need to stop their aggressive campaign against regulation.”