Gun conundrum: Why is ammunition still in short supply?
Demand for bullets has surged, resulting in a shortage and skyrocketing prices. Some see a nefarious federal intent to take ammunition off the market. Others cite panic buying among gun owners. Where does the truth lie?
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Ire in pro-gun circles about the government's ammo-buying habits surfaced in February, when the influential online news aggregator The Drudge Report featured a report that the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) had contracted to buy 1.6 billion bullets. (About 10 billion bullets total are sold in the US each year, according to the Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics, compiled by the State University of New York at Albany.)Skip to next paragraph
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A federal purchase that hogged 15 percent of America's total annual bullet production might indeed contribute to a shortage, but it's not that simple. For one, officials say DHS will actually buy more like 750 million bullets, though it is authorized to buy as many as 1.6 billion. For another, the contract is spread over five years – part of what DHS calls a "strategic sourcing" initiative to save money. Finally, the contract stipulation that bullet manufacturers must honor federal government ammo orders ahead of the public and local law enforcement, while rankling to gun rights activists, is par for the course, dating back to at least World War II.
In the end, the DHS budget calls for spending $37.2 million on bullets in fiscal 2013, compared with $36.5 million in 2012.
But critics – especially those who believe that the Obama administration is determined to discourage gun-ownership – are not assuaged, saying the DHS ammo purchase fits a pattern of this presidency: If you can’t run though your agenda legislatively, run through it anyway. Conservative talk-show host Michael Savage put it this way recently: “It’s a way to control the amount of [ammunition] that’s available on the commercial market at any time.”
“Once the government issued contracts for 1.6 billion rounds, even if it’s over five years, that’s a tremendous volume of shells coming off the market, and the market reacts to it,” says Mr. Dillard, of David’s Gun Room. “It’s very frustrating from everybody’s point when you have a government where, if they can’t take the guns, they say, ‘Hey, we’ll take the ammunition.’ It makes the gun a very expensive stick.”
In reaction, he adds, “People say, 'I better go get mine,’ and they go and buy everything in sight, so all of a sudden there isn’t anything.”
Congressmen chased that line of inquiry Thursday in hearings, where Rep. Darrell Issa (R) of California said the DHS ammo order “flies in the face of common sense” and appears as if the government is amassing ammunition.
DHS training officer Humberto Medina, in response, said he could "say categorically [that hoarding] was not a factor at all" in the purchases and that there is no effort to take ammunition off the market.
DHS says the “up to” order of 1.6 billion bullets is to secure at least 1,600 rounds a year for each federal law enforcement officer, largely for training purposes. In 2012, DHS bought 103 million rounds for 70,000 officers.
Mr. Medina replied that DHS made the move to stockpile because of market volatility (i.e., price increases) and problems with the supply chain.
Most gun industry insiders agree that government purchases have played a cameo role in the ongoing bullet shortage, but they say private gun owners – and panic buying – are the chief reason for the upending of America’s ammo supply train. One sign of the ongoing buying binge: Total federal tax receipts on bullet sales (which are dedicated to funding state wildlife conservation efforts, courtesy of the 1937 Pittman-Robertson Act) jumped 47 percent from 2011 to 2012, to nearly $2 billion.