The NRA: towards a better understanding

In its January/February issue, Mother Jones covered a report on the link between lead and human behavior. Rick Nevin, a consultant at the US Department of Housing and Urban Development ran some tests on the link between lead and violent crime:

In a 2000 paper (PDF) he concluded that if you add a lag time of 23 years, lead emissions from automobiles explain 90 percent of the variation in violent crime in America. Toddlers who ingested high levels of lead in the ’40s and ’50s really were more likely to become violent criminals in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s.

As the graph linking pirates and global warming famously shows, it’s possible to commit a correlation/causation fallacy any which way you like, so Nevin repeated his research in other countries for confirmation:

Nevin collected lead data and crime data for Australia and found a close match. Ditto for Canada. And Great Britain and Finland and France and Italy and New Zealand and West Germany. Every time, the two curves fit each other astonishingly well. When I spoke to Nevin about this, I asked him if he had ever found a country that didn’t fit the theory. “No,” he replied. “Not one.”

You may be familiar with some other theories of crime reduction — “broken windows” policing, baby boom demographics, the legalization of abortion, the popularization of drugs and the advent of the drug war, all of which are mentioned in the Mother Jones article — but it turns out none of them fully explain the data. On the other hand —

The gasoline lead story has another virtue too: It’s the only hypothesis that persuasively explains both the rise of crime in the ’60s and ’70s and its fall beginning in the ’90s. Two other theories—the baby boom demographic bulge and the drug explosion of the ’60s—at least have the potential to explain both, but neither one fully fits the known data. Only gasoline lead, with its dramatic rise and fall following World War II, can explain the equally dramatic rise and fall in violent crime.

And while the link between lead and violent crime is certainly encouraging (assuming the theory is correct, so long as we keep lead out of gasoline, reductions in violent crime should hold up), a higher level of violent crime is not the molecule’s only effect. As you were probably already aware, it’s also bad for your thinking ability:

Neurological research is demonstrating that lead’s effects are even more appalling, more permanent, and appear at far lower levels than we ever thought. For starters, it turns out that childhood lead exposure at nearly any level can seriously and permanently reduce IQ. Blood lead levels are measured in micrograms per deciliter, and levels once believed safe—65 μg/dL, then 25, then 15, then 10—are now known to cause serious damage. The EPA now says flatly that there is “no demonstrated safe concentration of lead in blood,” and it turns out that even levels under 10 μg/dL can reduce IQ by as much as seven points. An estimated 2.5 percent of children nationwide have lead levels above 5 μg/dL.

The articles goes on to discuss further negative effects caused by lead, the continuing danger it poses today (spoiler alert: there is still a lot of it in the soil, especially in urban areas), along with some possible solutions, but for now, just focus on the link between lead, violent crime, and lower IQ.

You see, automobile emissions were never the only source of lead in the environment, and lead can still be found in some commercial products today — which has to make you wonder how that fact might affect those who frequently come in contact with those products.

I’ve long known that lead can be found in ammunition — not because I read the Nutrition Information on any box of bullets, but because as someone concerned with endangered species and efforts to recover them, I am generally aware that lead bullets pose a threat to California condor program:

For the past 30 years, we’ve been working to bring the California condor – the largest bird in North America – back from the cliff-edge of extinction, engaging in an intensive wildlife management program that costs an estimated $5 million per year. And as recent studies show,  for same period we’ve been imperiling the condors’ comeback through regular poisoning of their habitat.

The consequences of that right-hand-giveth-and-left-hand-killeth approach are beautifully outlined in a paper published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) titled “Lead poisoning and the deceptive recovery of the critically endangered California condor”, which concluded that up to 88 percent of the birds in the wild show some signs of lead exposure.

The damage is severe enough that on average 20 percent of the population must be pulled out of the wild and treated for poisoning every year in order to survive.

But it wasn’t until I spotted a piece in today’s Seattle Times that I put two and two together to make four a smoking gun:

Gun range under fire over lead in blood of workers

Two dozen workers had symptoms of excess lead exposure during expansion of the firing range at Wade’s Eastside Guns in Bellevue. One described looking “like the Tin Man when you get it on you.”

Chris Seavoy and Joe Schmidt say they were sent to remodel a Bellevue indoor gun range with no protective gear or instructions about how to stay safe from toxic lead dust. There was no decontamination area.

In the following weeks, Schmidt developed tremors in addition to the headaches, stomachaches, lost appetite, fatigue and irritability that he and Seavoy both experienced — symptoms consistent with but not proof of acute lead exposure.

In November, blood tests showed them with so much of the dangerous metal they had to be pulled off the job at Wade’s Eastside Guns.

Seavoy and Schmidt, both ironworkers, are among dozens of construction workers and firing-range employees who were exposed to excess lead, sparking multiple government investigations and a lawsuit.

Mother Jones explains some of the science behind all that lead in firing ranges:

Lead is found in bullets as well as the explosive that ignites gunpowder. When a bullet is fired, it gets so hot that that lead actually vaporizes. Firing range employees breathe in the lead fumes, as well as ingest lead dust that settles on their body and clothes. OSHA sets the permissible level of atmospheric lead at 50 micrograms/meter2, but the report found that level frequently exceeded at military firing ranges, sometimes by several orders of magnitude.

But the article fails to draw the one final, crucial link, one that makes all too much sense when you think about it. So here, think about it: Bullets release lead vapors and dust. Shooting ranges are full of bullets. Shooting ranges are also full of NRA members, including but not limited to, one Wayne LaPierre.

One would have to imagine that all that lead has some effect.

Thanks to systematic evidence provided by Mr. LaPierre, we no longer have to imagine (I’m only sharing the headlines; for more details check out this article in the Atlantic Wire) — we have evidence! Some things he’s on the record saying:

Teenagers might kill cops because of Ice-T.

Clinton’s running a gun-grabbing goon squad.

American reporters are worse than Nazi and Stalinist propagandists.

The government is full of jack-booted thugs in bucket helmets.

Bill Clinton is encouraging criminals to commit crimes to build support for new gun laws.

No, really, Clinton is letting criminals kill people to get the public to support gun control.

And of course:

Only an armed guard in all 99,000 public schools can stop mass murderers.

“The only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”


No, I am never going to hold elected office.


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