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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:

“THE LAST SENTANCE SHOW YOU TO BE A LIBERAL WHO THINKS THAT GUNS ARE AN EVIL.”

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.

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