Before we dive into how to deal with being armed while pregnant we need to deal with the topic of guns and pregnancy.
One thing a woman learns almost the moment she gets pregnant (or perhaps even before she gets pregnant) is that there are a multitude of things that are restricted or moderated while pregnant. Alcohol consumption, eating fish, certain activities, all of these things change in favor of a healthy pregnancy and baby. A pregnant woman learns to ask, "Is it safe?" before taking up any new activity or even continuing with older activities she may have never considered to be unsafe before.
You can imagine, then, how natural it is for the gun-toting woman, upon learning she is pregnant, to ask, "Is it safe to continue to carry a firearm throughout my pregnancy?"
Now, I am no doctor. Let's get that out of the way right now. But if there are two things I know it's guns and google. That knowledge combined with at least one successful pregnancy and some medical advice thrown in makes me feel confident enough to advise on the matter.
In order to answer the question as to whether guns are safe to carry while pregnant you have to break it down to what might be considered dangerous about the firearm you are currently or wanting to carry while pregnant.
First let's break down the gun and its components and see how they might be harmful (if at all) to a pregnant woman.
A gun is made of a variety of materials. Steel, plastic, a type of polymer, aluminum and other various sturdy metals such as scandium. Often there can be grip panels made of other materials such as wood, vinyl, plastic or even exotic stones. Unless one has an allergic aversion to any of these materials or is hit over the head with them, the materials in your average pistol are no more dangerous than the pot you cook with, the car you drive in or the plates you eat from. No threat to pregnancy in the materials.
Now it's time to consider the ammunition. Ammunition consists of a casing usually made out of brass or aluminum, a primer, a powder charge and a projectile or bullet. The projectile is commonly made of lead with a copper jacket encasing the lead core. Obviously brass or aluminum is not harmful (again, unless you are allergic or hit over the head with a large quantity of said materials). We have brass fixtures in our homes, aluminum is extraordinarily abundant and primers, unless you live in a home wherein someone reloads are never separated from their casings. Copper is used in plumbing and cookware and is perfectly safe. BUT you saw it. There it was, the magic word that stands people's hairs on edge: LEAD.
LEAD CONTAMINATION AND GUNS
It's well known that lead is dangerous and can cause developmental and neurological problems. So to begin our talk about lead and guns we have to talk about how lead gets into the body. The two most common methods of lead getting into the body is through aspirating it into the lungs (that is, breathing it in) or ingesting it (eating or drinking it). Eating lead-based paint chips, breathing in lead dust from remodeling a house, handling lead and then not washing your hands before eating: these are common ways lead enters the body. Lead poisoning CAN happen through the skin as was evidenced by the lead-based makeup common in older Japan. However, this is extremely uncommon these days and takes long-term exposure through almost constant contact with lead particles. Almost any doctors office (or even construction company) can give you pamphlets on lead poisoning and how to avoid it on a daily basis around your home.
But what does that mean for you and your gun? Given the criteria for how lead gets into the body (aspiration or ingestion) lets look again at your average cartridge which is, again, a lead core encased in a copper jacket. Because the lead core is encased in copper that means the lead cannot be directly handled. Because it is not in dust or powder form it cannot be aspirated and unless you peel away the copper jacket and start chewing on the lead core (a feat in and of itself) you are safe from lead contamination from standard pistol ammunition.
In the interest of full disclosure and safety there ARE cartridges wherein lead makes up the entire projectile and is totally exposed. To be extra safe you may want to be sure your cartridges are jacketed or be sure to wash your hands carefully in COLD water after handling ammunition and especially before eating. It is very easy to tell the different between solid lead and jacketed ammunition. In solid lead ammunition the bullet or projectile is a dull gray color. In jacket ammo the bullet or projectile is copper in color.
If you are particularly concerned about the lead in ammunition you can also purchase lead-free ammunition that does not have the lead core and even limited lead particles in the powder.
Where lead contamination (or even poisoning) and guns start to mix is when you get on the range. When a gun is fired the firing pin strikes the primer which ignites the powder that explodes, forcing the projectile down the barrel.
Not all of the powder is ignited and with every shot a bit of the powder and residue of the explosion is blown back onto the shooter. This is known as Gun Shot Residue (GSR). GSR is often talked about on crime shows when evaluating whether or not an individual has fired a gun. However, contrary to the television shows that only show GSR on the hands, it actually gets everywhere. It is more concentrated on the hands but actually gets all over the shooters face, clothing, arms, and even into hair. This residue can and often does contain lead particles. It is inhaled as the shooter breaths and if not washed off after a range session can seep into the pores on the skin. In addition to lead particles in powders, when the lead core of the bullet strikes a solid back stop it can fragment into tiny particles. If the range is not properly ventilated these particles can be aspirated by the shooter.
Frequent shooters who spend most of their time shooting on indoor ranges should get their lead levels checked annually and keep informed on the maintenance schedule of the range to be sure that filters are being changed often and ventilation systems are properly maintained.
I worked for a year at an indoor gun store and range and while all of the employees had slightly higher than average lead levels we were all well within the range of normal (which is considered anything under 10) and we were all in the range on a daily basis breathing in lead particles and I do have to admit that a LOT of snacking went on without washing our hands (we lived dangerously). Even with all of that lead exposure most of the employees who were tested had levels between 4 and 6. The national average for the US is somewhere around 2 according to the CDC. Those employees with levels around 6 were taken off range duty until those lead levels went down.
I have, however, met shooters who have shot daily on old ranges that were not well ventilated in a time when the country was still relatively naive about lead and its effects. These shooters did not properly wash before eating or even going to bed and ended up with lead levels up to 16 and began experiencing the physical effects of lead poisoning and needing medical assistance to get those lead levels back under control.
Because of the understanding of the dangers of lead while shooting any reputable indoor range is required to have proper ventilation systems in place and in good working order and this is almost a non-issue for outdoor ranges.
SO WHAT DOES ALL THIS MEAN FOR A PREGNANT WOMAN?
In all probability, if you went out to an outdoor range every week of your pregnancy and shot your firearm and were careful about washing your hands, face and clothes as soon as possible afterward and did not consume food or drink until you had washed, you would more-than-likely not see a single point rise in your blood lead levels. Wearing gloves and a mask would protect you even further. There is, however, still an exposure that you would not get if you were not shooting.
Will that lead exposure be enough of an exposure to hurt your baby? More-than-likely, no. There is, however, no scientific data to indicate how much lead exposure is "safe" for a developing fetus and it's a risk that many pregnant mothers have chosen not to take. Not to mention that many ranges will not allow pregnant women shoot for the lead and noise pollution which becomes an issue somewhere between 13 and 16 weeks of pregnancy (we will cover noise pollution in a later post).
For those pregnant women who are forced to qualify with firearms (police officers or military personnel) for their job, rest assured that your exposure to lead is minimal and you can ask your superiors to put you on the firing line first (before the lead particles are airborne and stirred up), allow you to shoot and leave the range as soon as you are done. This is also an important request for any pregnant women who may be taking a firearms class. If your qualification or class is held on an open outdoor range, stand upwind where you can get plenty of fresh air and lead particles will be blown away from you if possible. If it is not possible to stand upwind then at least find distance from the firing line as often as possible for some fresh air and be sure to wash your hands, arms and face in cool or cold water (this keeps your pores from opening) carefully before eating or drinking anything. And keep all food and drink secure away from the range so that particles do not get in or on your food or drink.
Also, for those who are forced to use a firearm in self defense while pregnant, again, rest assured that the lead and noise exposure to your unborn child is minimal at best and probably far less taxing on either of you than the stress of the circumstances surrounding the shooting.
I do, and will continue to shoot on a more limited basis until around that 13 week mark but an unfired firearm is safe to carry for the duration of the pregnancy.