Lead Astray

Literal gun crimeReminiscences on a serious Stateside gun crime: You would think you wouldn’t find a less controversial topic to write about than the analysis of heavy metals using thermal ionisation mass spectrometry (TIMS). In some ways it must sound like the dullest topic in the world, beyond those who work with MS. However, when the metal in question is lead, and its source is ammunition then I should have been prepared for a flame-war from the US readership over one particular specialist publication for which I wrote on the subject a few years ago. The bottom line is: don’t make flippant remarks connecting guns and ill health unless you want to be shot down in flames.

Anyway, the article in question (Instruments and Applications – Lead astray, from the now defunct Today’s Chemist at Work, can be downloaded here as a PDF) discussed TIMS’ analytical prowess and the serendipitous discovery by Australian researchers that it is not only those looking down the barrel of a gun who can end up with a nasty dose of lead, but perhaps even those holding the shooters themselves. With that article, it seems I hit a rather raw nerve in ending my feature with a rather glib question asking whether this might be a “healthy argument against bearing arms.”

In finishing with this throwaway query I was apparently jeopardising the very US Constitution. At least that’s the impression I got when my Editor began to forward the deluge of letters of complaint. I was accused of ignorance (not the first time), of having a political agenda (never), and even of being a “liberal” (perish the thought). One shooting chemist emailed in all uppercase letters to show his indignation:


Iron-ically, or should I say lead-ingly, another correspondent critical of the inaccurate portrayal of guns in fiction came to my rescue: “Keep up the good work, and kudos to David Bradley for a well-written article!” he proclaimed. So everything I wrote wasn’t all bad, after all.

Spelling, grammar, capital errors, and green spidery ink aside, the comments received highlighted an issue on which many readers of the magazine were obviously very passionate. I must confess, nothing I have written before has generated quite so many letters.

Was I na├»ve to throw scorn, albeit flippantly, on the idea of bearing arms? My Editor and her colleagues were as stunned as I at how many letters the article generated, especially given that the magazine was targeted at industrial chemists and not the general public. However, the 99,967 or so subscribers who didn’t write in obviously didn’t feel that the attitude gap between opposite sides of the Atlantic was quite as wide as the few who did.

4 thoughts on “Lead Astray”

  1. Thanks for the support guys. Couple of related things. Lead-free ammunition is increasingly common and is a forensics nightmare that is only recently being solved.

    Yes, a small dose of lead isn’t a serious problem, it’s repeated exposure, leaded gas (where it is still used), lead drinking water pipes (and even plastic pipes with brass (contains lead) fittings), and those lead wine flagons people use at toga parties. Of course, lead evolved as a vessel and pipework material not only because it is malleable and non-porous, but because it sweetened the wine slightly.

  2. I just don’t think an occasional puff of lead is that much to be concerned about if you’re the shooter. If I owned a gun, I might avoid lead rounds or wear a facemask when target shooting. When loading for self-defense, I’d choose the proper ammunition for the situation because firing to defend happens so infrequently that there won’t be enough lead exposure to matter. When a gun is the proper tool for the situation, the risks due to not shooting are certainly more immediate and severe than a puff of lead. And I was probably exposed to more lead from car tailpipes than I’d get from self-defense shootings. I wonder how much lead is in that dust drifting across North America from China?

  3. David:

    I did not find your article objectionable. You were just reporting the facts.

    It has been known for quite some time that “shooters” expose themselves to unhealthy levels of lead while shooting and while manufacturing ammunition. (I used to buy lead from operators of linotype machines, remelt it and recast it into the desired shape and size in my workshop. Historically, I was always around bare and running selinium rectifiers — guess I’m a walking collector of pollution).

    But, ammunition manufacturers and others (Oak Ridge Laboratory) are working to solve this problem. Lead free ammunition is on the way — any aware shooter should know this. The question is cost and the intended effect of the bullet.

    Thus, I think the Constitution on this side of the pond is safe.

    It’s evolution of science. Just think, your ancestors and my ancestors drank their favorite brew out of lead cups — we know not to do that now.

    Good article. I didn’t see it as a political position — and that comes from one who thinks that the right to bear arms is just that, nothing less, a “right” that must be defended — even though I have quit being a shooter, but only out of becoming bored. Pun intended.

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