Why shooting should be banned on our public lands

Bullets found on the desert ground near the Domelands near Anza Borrego.
Shell casings left behind in the California desert.

As I was lounging in my foldable camping chair, enjoying the peaceful silence that so many seek out in the vast, open desert, shots rang out. A startling round of blasts, not more than 50 meters away, began to echo through the hillsides and drill straight into my eardrums.

One, two, three, ten, twenty shots. I wasn’t counting.

Our camping neighbors, who were not more than a stone’s throw from where we had set up our tent, were shooting off their pistols into the hillside, hooting and hollering over a few cold Coronas.

I actually really liked these guys. Earlier we struck up a conversation about different corners of the desert that we had explored. They even apologized for camping so close to us, but they had no choice since they had set this spot as a rendezvous with their friends who didn’t have cell reception.

However, during our conversation there was never a friendly heads up about the shooting range that they were about to transform our campsite into.

A few more rounds of gunfire continued past dusk until the dark of the night bought us some peace and quiet.

The next morning we broke camp early to log some miles out in the Coyote Mountain Wilderness.

Not too long into our hike, once again flurries gunshots rang out through the hillsides. We had hiked a few miles away, so the sound was much more bearable, but still very audible even on the other side of some low mountains.

Through the early morning and into the afternoon, a symphony of gunfire was our background music, with the varying levels of volume offering hints as to where it was coming from.

While at first it was just a slight annoyance, the recreational shooting really started to get on my nerves when I thought more about the litter it causes.

I silently pondered, “What’s the difference between discarding bullets and blatantly throwing your Big Mac wrappers out your car window? Bullets and casings are also trash as far as I’m concerned.”

I’ve never been a fan of guns, but after my experience that weekend out in the desert, I had my mind made up: Recreational shooting should be banned from our public lands.

Shotgun shell hidden among the grass in the California desert.
A shotgun shell and target fragments lay on the ground.

Shooting is littering

When I first set up my camp and went for a stroll to survey the surrounding terrain, two things stood out to me: 1) the ocotillo flower blooms were just hitting their peak and 2) the dirt was absolutely littered with bullets and casings.

Kicking up the surface layer of dirt would expose bullet casings every time without fail. There were shotgun shells and targets, high caliber casings, and small pistol casings everywhere.

It really irked me. Clearly shooting is a hobby that does not get anywhere close to following ‘leave no trace’ principles. And while so many of us take such effort to leave our public lands as minimally impacted as possible, others are dumping truckloads of trash in the name of good ol’ fun.

Upon completing my hike and returning to our campsite, I ventured over to where our neighbors had been shooting the night before. It was easy to identify their rust-free, shiny casings among the weathered ones that had been there for some time.

Our neighbors had been quite meticulous in picking up all other trash that may have been left behind, but not the bullet casings. They are like the cigarette smokers that are against littering except when it comes to their cigarette butts.

Frustrated with the level of pollution in the desert I love, I decided the least I could do was put a small dent in the trash pile. My girlfriend and I filled up a gallon zip loc bag with casings and bullets, not needing to stray outside a 50×50 feet area to get the job done in 5 minutes.

As I was picking up casings, I heard a string of several shots off in the distance — more trash to clean up. Ridding the desert of this litter is an impossible task.

A pile of bullets collected on BLM land in the California desert.
A pile of casings that my girlfriend and I collected to dispose of.
Collecting bullet litter in the desert of California.
I normally don’t post pictures of the trash that I pick up on my hikes, but this one was unique, to say the least.

If it hurts my ears, then what about the wildlife?

As the sounds of shots reverberated throughout the hillsides, causing me to wince each time, I could only imagine what impact they had on the wildlife.

Many people think the desert is lifeless, but that is far from the truth. Migratory birds, lizards, jackrabbits, coyotes, bobcats, bighorn sheep, and foxes, among other fauna, roam these barren lands. The desert is full of life.

If these gunshots were bothering me and my hearing, they surely must’ve been doing damage to the minuscule ear drums of the birds and the lizards.

They surely confuse the bigger mammals and scare them away from their habitats, leaving them with less room to roam in their already shrinking open spaces.

Is that really the effect that we want to leave on our public lands?

A trailhead sign covered in bullet holes in the California desert.
What appears to have once been a trailhead sign, is now a rusted, bullet ridden piece of metal.

Safety protocol? What safety protocol?

Lastly, it is quite difficult to feel safe while hiking when recreational shooters appear to have never taken gun safety 101.

As I was exiting the trailhead and entering the main ‘parking lot’ for this area, I could hear more gun shots that ceased as we approached.

A group of young men with 10×10 pop up tents were hanging out in the parking lot, seemingly minding their own business, enjoying the desert sun. We exchanged hellos as we passed.

As soon as we crossed the dirt lot, turned the corner, and were out of view, the shooting resumed, unmistakably from the same men that had been sitting in the parking lot.

I thought, “Are you kidding me?!?!”

“You are shooting across a path that people are hiking on?!”

While these idiots surely don’t represent all gun owners, it only takes one group of idiots to accidentally kill someone.

One might ask why I didn’t confront these people and politely ask them to stop shooting or clean up their mess. Let’s say 9 out of 10 gun owners would have been empathetic of my request and understanding of the situation. There will always be that one person of out 10 that is not, and that puts you in a situation where you are in the middle of nowhere talking to an angry person with a gun.

That is a confrontation that is best to avoid.

Nothing more peaceful than the background noise of gunshots as you hike.

Go shoot your guns at the range and keep our public lands pristine

As someone that has never felt the ‘thrill’ of shooting a gun, gun owners surely will question my credibility on the matter. As a tree-hugging city-dweller (our camping neighbors referred to the ‘tree-huggers’ multiple times) living in a liberal bubble, I simply wasn’t raised around guns and they don’t interest me in the slightest.

But I come to this argument as an outdoor enthusiast who enjoys the vast, wide open public lands that we have access to in the San Diego area. It pains me to see people littering, hurting wildlife, and putting others’ lives at risk.

I won’t even get into the second amendment. Just go shoot your guns somewhere else.

Go to a range. They clean up your bullets, you won’t bother wildlife, and you won’t put others’ safety at risk.

If you like to hunt within the bounds of the law, that’s fine. That’s a few stray bullets that at least serve a purpose — not a massive pile of bullets that serve no purpose at all.

The BLM (Bureau of Land Management) website isn’t super easy to navigate and the rules seem to vary depending on each individual region, but the website does make it clear that ‘leave no trace’ principles apply, which includes “disposing of waste properly”, “respecting wildlife” and “being considerate of other visitors”, all of which are not in line with the recreational shooting that I have witnessed.

The BLM website requests that “all targets, shell casings, debris and trash must be removed.”

Apparently, no one gives a shit about this rule. And even if they did, what about all of the bullets that get left behind?

In conclusion: Our public lands are a finite, shrinking resource for us all to enjoy. Let’s not ruin the limited space that we have just because shooting guns is fun.

Let’s keep these lands beautiful and pristine, so that they can be enjoyed by others for generations to come, and not a lifeless wasteland of discarded bullets.

Sunrise at the Domelands in California.
Just a small piece of this desert that I love oh-so-much.

11 thoughts

  1. I had no idea this kind of random shooting is allowed on public lands as opposed to seasonal hunting. Our state tries to stop target practice in the backyard—a thing here—by sponsoring shooting ranges. One of those is in our town and people who live nearby say the noise is deafening all day long. During the lockdown it has ceased and people are enjoying the peace. Citizens may have some kind of a safety-limited constitutional right to own and carry guns but no one has a right to litter, endanger the public or create a noise nuisance. I am sure most people agree with you but the gun lobby has had the upper hand for a long time and gun-owners have intimidated the majority. Maybe the current emergency can start people thinking about how much we have lost and how to begin to restore the democratic rule of law here. I am encouraged by how much blowback there has been against the libertarian/ survivalist types who keep trying to sabotage measures enacted for the public good. Thanks for another interesting read and happy earth day.


    1. Thanks for reading Shelley. Yes shooting is legal on many parts of BLM land in the desert. People are very emotional about their guns but no one seems to admit that it inherently liters.


  2. I like the point of saying they meticulously picked up after themselves but not the shells.. then proceed to post a photo of rusted old shells that obviously weren’t theirs especially considering you said they shot for hours (hundreds of rounds). Littering is absolutely wrong but if you are so threaded by the exercise of our second amendment go camp where shooting is not allowed.


      1. Hey Micah,

        Thanks for reading my post and commenting.

        1) As per your first point, I agree. I have heard quite a few opinions after posting this article and not yet have I encountered someone who shoots on public lands who claims that they can follow Leave No Trace principles. Essentially they all admit to littering to some extent, no matter how much trash they pack out. That doesn’t sit well with me.

        2) As per your second point. You are right that I could turn a blind eye to this, never go back to hiking our BLM lands and the problem would “disappear” from my life. I prefer to stand for what I believe in. I cannot simply accept that certain unofficial “shooting” areas of our beautiful open spaces will be turned into trash piles devoid of wildlife. How could I idly sit back and accept that our second amendment right gives us the right to so blatantly disrespect our natural, shared spaces? I can’t.



  3. Hello Evan,
    I can appreciate your article; however there are many other things that should be considered.
    1: Anybody using the BLM land should pickup what they leave. I agree on this; however there are also many people who go out simply to just pick up brass and cartridges. We should not count on this but many people actually make a living this way by going out for a day, dropping in daily, weekly, monthly. Whatever works to sift sand and gather, clean, sell or reload the cartridge’s. I do see there are some corroded but that actually happens relatively quickly and doesn’t mean they don’t get collected as well.

    2: BLM land is great because its the place we all own. People should be respectful towards others but that is what makes it a nice amenity to enjoy, its the one place where people can do what they want with very limited rules and regulations. If you cant use your land you bought, and you cant use public land, you put people in a spot. Riding dirt bikes, mountain bikes, campers making fires, leaving trash. Everything ruins the outdoor experience. Trails give way to land breaking down, wildlife being displaced. We have preserves for this reason.

    This is the same as climbers leaving petons in rocks (Highly Damaging to rock faces), abandoned ropes, tools, etc. Even the PCT is covered in litter. Some people are just pigs, guns or no guns.

    As for ranges, some people don’t have the money for the pricey times, and even if they do, you have one direct lane. Shooting in the open allows you to incorporate movement, different styles of targets, and run drills. Or even kick back with your buddies and make a day of it. Shooting on free land is much more fun and allows you to really enjoy the hobby or lifestyle as a sport as well as the great outdoors.

    Now I don’t know where you were or the exact situation but shooting is not allowed in all BLM land either, only specific locations. Most of the people are actually very friendly. I understand it can appear intimidating but if you approached your neighbors and politely asked or inquired about the situation I am sure they would have been kind enough to provide you with a little extra space.

    If people could communicate a little better without jumping to we should ban whatever we don’t like people would all get along much better and settle disputes amicably.


    1. All of this is damage to nature, I don’t think we need to ban any of this activity, just pro-actively build a culture that inspires people to do better to preserve what we have. The key to the problem is education so people will care rather than banning any of it.

      Keep loving the great outdoors, and maybe just to have a better understanding try to meet up with a group who likes to shoot and join in for the fun if for nothing but to better understand why and how they like it. It may not be your thing but would give you a great perspective to see why people love it so much.


      1. All for encouraging people to do better. I just don’t feel like being complicit with the problem, for the reasons stated in the article. Even though I don’t shoot guns, I have no doubt it is a blast. That doesn’t take away from the fact that shooters, at best, are leaving tons of lead bullets out in our shared public spaces.


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