Target Shooting and Wildfires

By Justin Stapley | Contributing Author

The threat of man-made wildfires has grown exponentially in recent years.  Millions of acres burn every year, and populated areas are increasingly endangered.  In response, many proposals have been made and policies put into place to mitigate the circumstances which can lead to the start of a wildfire.  One such proposition needing further consideration is the idea of banning target shooting on public lands. 

Many of these policies have demonstrated effectiveness, especially as the public becomes aware of the activities likely to lead to that dangerous first spark.  However, as with all reactions to pressing issues, some ideas demand further introspection to determine their likely effectiveness. 

While it may seem apparent that target shooting can present a clear risk for starting a man-made fire, that risk may be fundamentally misunderstood and compounded by misleading statistics. No argument can be made that shooting hasn’t resulted in a fair amount of man-made fires. However, a consideration of the details may frustrate a case for a wholesale ban. 

Generally, specific circumstances in the particular nature of shooting contribute to the fires; namely, the ammunition and targets used.  The most widely available and commonly used ammunition for target shooting is lead and copper-plated ammunition. Shot against a soft backstop at appropriate targets, these types of ammunition pose no serious fire threat. 

While any kind of metal striking a rock or other hard surface has the chance of sparking, lead and copper-plated ammunition has the same likelihood of starting a fire as a horseshoe hitting a rock on a horse-trail.

In contrast, less available and more expensive ammunition such as tracer rounds, incendiary, and steel-tip ammunition present a severe threat for sparking a fire.  The type of target is cause for concern as well.  Common paper targets, cans, bottles, and cardboard are unlikely to spark when shot with standard ammunition. 

Steel targets, exploding targets, or refuse targets with flammable materials (propane tanks, chemical containers, appliances, etc.) can create sparks or explosions due to the impact, and spark a fire.  In short, the greatest threat for causing a fire lies with specific choices in ammunition and targets and not with the general activity of target shooting.  

There is also a question as to the certainty of statistics released by government organizations related to the number of fires caused by target shooting.  Skeptics point to an interesting trend.  While wildfires blamed on cigarette smoking have significantly decreased in the last decade, blazes blamed on target shooting have increased. 

The possibility exists that target shooting has taken the place of cigarette smoking as the go-to scapegoat for wildfires of uncertain origin. According to the Phoenix New Times, a Freedom of Information Act request revealed that in 15 of 23 fires between 2009 and 2012 considered “target shooting correlated fires”, “…the only reason for the label of ‘target shooting correlated’ is because they started on or near a known target-shooting area and because almost all other causes for the fires were ruled out.” 

Several of the investigations stated a belief that target-shooting was the cause but that “no evidence collected.” At least in this small sample of investigations, the majority of “target shooting correlated fires” were labeled as such only through circumstantial evidence, at best.

Well-intentioned policies designed to solve a pressing problem should always be considered with serious preponderance.  However, the intentions themselves do not suggest good policy.  Target-shooting is an everyday activity in many rural areas and is ingrained in American culture both through rural and constitutional tradition. 

The feasibility of year-round bans on target-shooting in public lands is not even certain, given the low personnel and assets available to commit to such a law enforcement action.  The risks of target shooting could very much be overstated and at or below the level of other everyday recreational activities on public lands, such as ATV riding.

Those dangers could easily be mitigated by focusing attention on controlling the use of specific ammunition and targets in high-risk months.  A complete target shooting ban on public lands is unlikely to have a recognizable effect on decreasing wildfires and indeed would be a policy impossible to enforce.


Justin Stapley is a political writer whose principles and beliefs are grounded in the idea of ordered liberty as expressed in the traditions of classical liberalism, federalism, and modern conservatism. His writing has been featured at the Federalist Coalition, the NOQ Report, and Porter Medium. He lives in Bluffdale, Utah, with his wife and daughters.