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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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Moreover, there are more guns than ever in circulation, at 400 million, and a jump in the number of gun owners to at least 70 million. 

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“A lot of this depends on publicity,” says Andrew Molchan, director of the 1,000-member National Association of Federally Licensed Firearms Dealers, based in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.. “If the news is full of terrorism and talk about gun control and people on TV speaking about controlling this and controlling that, sales go up. It’s kind of like if [CNN's] Piers Morgan got on TV and said, ‘Don’t buy pink toothbrushes,’ the next morning they’d sell 300,000 pink toothbrushes. There’s a hoarding instinct.”

Ammo that is especially in short supply includes the AR-15’s .223, as well as .38, .45, 9 mm, and .22 et cetera, says Mr. Molchan. Prices have shot up dramatically, with a single .22 round that used to sell for five cents now costing at least 50 cents. 

“Popular deer-hunting rifles in Pennsylvania still are available. What isn't available is ammunition for those rifles,” Erie Times-News outdoors columnist Mike Bleech wrote earlier this year.

Meanwhile, bullet manufacturing in the US is dominated by “old-timers” hesitant to expand production capacity because they expect the ammo-buying wave to crest and then subside, says Molchan. The industry is working at about 87 percent capacity, he and other experts say, because it doesn't have enough black powder and primer on hand to sustain a ramped-up production schedule. 

Kristi Hoffman, co-owner of Black Hills Ammunition in Rapid City, S.D., says this is the third time the company has been 18 months behind on its orders –the previous times being the 1993-94 debate over the assault weapons ban and the months after President Obama’s election in 2008.

So far, the company has been loath to hire more employers or to buy more equipment. “Do we have more [production] room? Yes, we have more room, but we’re not going to add more people than we have right now, because we don’t know when this is going to stop, and if it does stop within the next year we don’t want to be in a position to lay off personnel,” she says in a phone interview.

“We don’t like this kind of business,” Ms. Hoffman adds. “Don’t get me wrong, money and business is still good, but we prefer to have nice, steady growth instead of having spikes because of political and economic reasons.”

In the end, says Malchon, the ammo hoarding that is going on “is primarily private indivudals, rightly or wrongly. The survivalists, they’re the ones sitting there with probably 10 cases of ammunition." He adds, "It doesn’t make any sense, but does it make a lot of people feel better? The answer is yes, so what can you say?”

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