Even though we may have never had a negligent discharge, and always follow safe gun handling rules, you may not be as safe as you can be when using your firearms. I am talking about practicing good hygiene when in contact act with your firearms. I admit I took absolutely zero hygiene safety precautions during my time in the Marine Corps. Collecting tons of brass on the range and carrying it in my cover (hat for you non-Marines), shooting, cleaning and carrying my M-16 everywhere and eating my food without the thought of washing my hands. While you likely aren't on week long field ops or removed from running water but often times we still don't take the time to practice good hygiene after a day at the range.
Shooting a firearm involves an explosion which creates pressures that expel the bullet down the barrel and toward the target. Along with the bullet, gasses push residue from the combustion process back onto the shooters hands face and torso. While this is mostly invisible, it is far from harmless. The problem with this residue is that it contains lead particles. If you are older than 40 years old chances you grew up playing with toys or lived in homes painted with lead paint. Lead paint is now prohibited, and unless you ate the paint chips you probably did not suffer ill effects of your exposure to lead. The lead particles that coat our body while shooting are a different story. They are microscopic and can easily be absorbed through our skin's pores. Breathing the particles in is another huge way we can contaminate ourselves. Shooting outdoors drastically reduces this method of lead exposure, and this is the reason indoor ranges must have exceptional ventilation in order to be safe.
Ammunition comes in many different styles. Most bullets are made of pieces of lead. Many manufacturers produce jacketed bullets, which is a coating of metal over of the lead bullet. This could be semi-jacketed or fully-jacketed. This type of ammunition is safe to handle however safety should obviously be used when using unjacketed ammunition, where the lead projectile is completely exposed.
Collecting spent casings is another area where you can unintentionally expose yourself to lead. I often times see children collecting their parents brass after a day at the range. It scares me because of a number of times kids hands go into their mouths without being washed. The dirt is likely fine…small lead particles…not so much.
Cleaning a handgun exposes your hands to not only the fine coating of lead particles but the sometimes corrosive and unhealthy cleaning solvents.
What can you do? Shooting your firearm is not exposing you to huge amounts of lead, however, any amount should be avoided if you can. Children and expectant mother should be especially safeguarded against lead exposure. In addition to thoroughly washing your hands after shooting a firearm, I recommend washing your clothing before hugging or playing with your children. I wash all my range clothing separately from the rest of the families laundry, just to make sure I am not transferring lead particles to my daughter's clothing. I've spoken with doctors about the safety of expectant mothers while shooting. Their advice was that in addition to hand washing, expectant mothers who want to shoot should wear gloves and shoot outdoors. This will reduce lead exposure drastically. If you are going to eat food, ensure you thoroughly washed your hands after shooting or cleaning your firearm.
Don't freak out- Chances are, even if you have practiced poor firearms hygiene for years, you have not done irreversible damage to your body. I have 40 years of living proof (at least so far). But once my 4-year-old daughter was born, I changed my habits and practice good firearms hygiene. Now you have another way to stay safe on the range. Let's be sure the lead is detrimental to the bad guys, not us.