Difficult as it is to be both right and wrong about an issue, some politicians are adept at it. Such was my conclusion after reading legislation proposed at the Capitol by Sen. Jen McEwen, DFL-Duluth, and Rep. Patty Acomb, DFL-Minnetonka, that would ban lead used by target shooters, hunters and anglers. Thriving high school trapshooters would be particularly affected.

Since the days of Izaak Walton — who died in 1683 — anglers have used lead to help sink their fishing hooks to depths inhabited by targeted fish. Bullets, meanwhile, made from lead were first developed in the 1400s.

In the centuries since, particularly during the Industrial Revolution (1760-1840), lead has been identified as toxic to people, especially those who work in and around it for extended periods.

Today, various state and national laws and regulations govern lead's use, including for sporting purposes. Since 1991, for example, lead has been banned for waterfowl hunting throughout the United States. No health hazard to hunters has been alleged. Instead, the concern is that spent shot-shell pellets deposited in wetlands can be ingested by ducks, loons and other waterfowl, killing them.

In recent decades in Minnesota, various additional legislative proposals and/or administrative regulations have been offered to ban certain lead sinkers and other fishing tackle and to further reduce lead's use in hunting.

Most of these suggestions have gone nowhere, and some of the failings are unfortunate. In my view, lead shot shells should be banned on state wildlife management areas for pheasant and other upland hunting, as they are for waterfowl hunting. And a strong case can be made that to protect eagles, crows, ravens, wolves, coyotes and other critters that feast on deer gut piles left by hunters, the use of lead rifle bullets should be strongly discouraged, and perhaps banned.

In opposing the tackle ban, the state's fishing industry manufacturers in part have argued they can't afford to produce nontoxic tackle for Minnesota while also building lead tackle for other states. Further restrictions on lead ammunition also have run into industry roadblocks, despite possible threats to human health. Evidence exists, for example, that lead bullets used for deer hunting can fragment upon impact into imperceptible pieces, increasing the chances venison is tainted by lead.

Into this milieu come McEwen and Acomb and their lead-banning bill (SF 3792/HF 3813), which, to mix metaphors a bit, throws out not just one baby with the bath water, but entire nurseries.

Condensed, the bill:

  • Prohibits the use of lead ammunition and tackle in 4H activities.
  • Limits Minnesota shooting ranges to the use of nontoxic ammunition only.
  • Restricts state shooting club grants to those using only nontoxic ammunition.
  • Prohibits without setting a date the use of lead shot for all hunting in the state.
  • Prohibits, without setting a date, possession of lead sinkers or jigs weighing 1 ounce or less, or less than 2.5 inches long.
  • Requires by Nov. 1 this year that Minnesota State High School Clay Target League adopt rules for its 12,000 youth shooters to use nontoxic ammunition only.
  • Appropriates money beginning in 2025 to check the blood of prep shooters for lead contamination.
  • Directs the Department of Natural Resources to the extent funding is available "to provide hunters and shooting sports participants with nontoxic ammunition at no cost or at a reduced cost" and "to fund an ammunition buy-back and exchange program."

In attempting to do so much with so little explanation, this bill likely will self-destruct — setting back for years, unfortunately, more legitimate attempts to limit lead's uses in Minnesota.

As many as 90% of eagles brought to the Raptor Center at the U are tainted with lead, and a third of those birds die. Strong evidence also exists that some Minnesota loons (and grebes) that ingest certain pieces of lead fishing tackle die.

Should something be done legislatively about these threats? Arguably, yes. But McEwen and Acomb's bill doesn't make a case for these changes. Nor do they offer counterarguments to Department of Natural Resources reports — which their opponents will surely cite — that say the state's loon population has been stable for 29 years and that its eagle numbers are increasing.

Grasping at still more straws, the bill lumps together all "gun ranges," whether indoor, where rifles and handguns are routinely fired using lead ammunition, or outdoor, at which shotguns are triggered in trapshooting and similar competitions such as those authorized by the State High School League.

Lead inhalation and other threats have been well documented at indoor ranges, and the federal government has stringent regulations regarding their exhaust systems, employee protection protocols and so forth. No comparable risk has been established affecting shooters at outdoor ranges.

Perhaps good reasons exist to regulate shooting sports in Minnesota in ways no other state does — not even California. But considering this bill would deflate, almost overnight, Minnesota's fastest-growing prep sport by boosting their ammunition costs by as much as $500 per person, those reasons should be cited.

"Our son is 20 now, but when he was in high school, we didn't have a trap team so I drove him 70 miles one way to shoot with the Detroit Lakes team," said Shawn Ramsey, a farmer from Fertile, Minn. "Since then, we've started a trap team at Fertile-Beltrami High School, and even though we only graduate 35 or 40 kids a year, we'll have 50 kids on the trap team. It's important to these kids to be part of something positive, part of a team."

About 39% of youth shooters don't participate in any other extracurricular school activity. The entire Fertile-Beltrami community helped field its local shotgunning squad. A farmer donated 30 acres for a trap range. The DNR helped with a shooting range grant. Raffles were held. Supplies and labor were donated.

"We're at about $600 a kid to field a team, figuring in shells, targets and uniforms‚" Ramsey said. "But we charge no student more than $200, and if they can't afford that, we'll figure out a way to get it done through fundraisers and donations."

McEwen and Acomb are correct that no one — kids, especially — should be put at risk while shooting trap, skeet or sporting clays, or by joining 4H. But they're wrong in proposing such slipshod and costly legislation without demonstrating harm.

Every year, hundreds of thousands of state residents shoot at outdoor ranges. As with other scatter gunners who have done so safely, and enjoyably, for generations, they're relaxed and "in the zone" while cradling a shotgun and calling for a clay disc to rocket from a trap house.

It's when the Legislature is in session that they start to worry.