Out of Ammo
Ammunition in Short Supply, or Unavailable—Everywhere
BY QUINCY ORHAI
Twenty-two caliber long rifle ammunition, the most popular, low cost ammunition sold in the United States, has disappeared from the shelves of stores across the USA and here in southwest Montana. Less popular handgun calibers, .32, .380 and .25, are scarce and expensive, and the more popular .38, .357, .40, 9mm, .44, and .45 caliber handgun ammunition is often sold off the shelf within minutes of being stocked.
High caliber rifle ammunition is also in short supply, with the most popular calibers chronically sold out within minutes or hours of being stocked on store shelves. Popular .223 ammunition, used in the Mini-14 Ranch Rifle and the AR-15, is especially hard to find, even in high quality match grades, and even in low quality ball or surplus military grades. Internet sales are available in limited quantities, but at huge mark-ups.
Five hundred round "bricks" of .22 ammunition, selling for $7.50 to $10.00 before the 2008 presidential election, are not normally available now at retail outlets, or are back ordered. Boxes of 50 count .22 long rifle bullets are now selling online for $15 plus shipping, 20 times higher than the 2008 price. Only one of the stores we surveyed in Gallatin and Park counties that normally stock ammunition reported having any .22 caliber rim-fire ammunition in stock on July 25. When asked when they would be resupplied, the common answer was “we don’t know,” or “we sell out as fast as it comes in.”
What is going on here? Why is there an ammunition shortage in the United States, arguably the most armed country in the world? We asked Bret Heidkamp, President of Crosstac, a local supplier of tactical shooting equipment, including mats, slings and belts. Heidkamp is a previous champion in United States Practical Shooting Association and International Tactical Rifleman's Championship competitions. He teaches and competes in various shooting sports, and is well acquainted with the national and local gun culture.
“We are in the second stage of a huge gun and ammunition hoarding process,” he said. The first stage of that process started with the election of President Obama,” Heidkamp told us, and lasted several years. “The second stage followed his reelection and the Sandy Hook Massacre,” he said, “combined with Congressional attempts to limit purchasing and ownership of weapons and ammunition and rumors of Homeland Security buying all the available ammunition.” That scenario created a perfect storm, according to Heidkamp, a self-fulfill-ing prophecy of guns and ammunition scarcity.
“After Obama’s first election,” he went on to say, “all AR-15’s [the popular .223 caliber tactical rifle] disappeared almost overnight from normal sales venues, or were only available at three times their normal price. That was driven by fears that they would soon no longer be available.”
As demand exploded, the price of lead bullets and other supplies for reloading tripled in the last 10 years. “The increased cost of all components for reloading has put a damper on training,” Heidkamp said.
Because of the difficulty in obtaining steady supplies of ammunition, Crosstac has put on hold plans for marketing ammo. “The equipment and ammunition cost of participating in competitive shooting is now too high for too many Americans…including women, the fastest growing segment of the market,” Heidkamp added.
The Department of Homeland Security has issued public denials that recent federal contracts for bullets has effected civilian markets. That amount of ammunition to be purchased is business as usual, according to DHS, which insists most of the ammunition is to be used by the estimated 170,000 armed federal agents, from hundreds of federal agencies, for regular training purposes.
DHS purchases of ammunition has become such an issue that the Congressional Government Accountability Office (GAO) has been begun an investigation.
The Associated Press reported in February that DHS had plans to buy more than 1.6 billion rounds of ammunition, but DHS officials testified to Congress it was only planning to buy up to 750 million.
The government's explanation for buying the ammo (over 5 years) relates to "strategic sourcing contracts," through which the government pays less per round by buying in higher quantities, according to the AP. But that explanation, critics claim, fails to account for recent purchases of more expensive hollow point ammo, or to explain why deadly hollow points—which fragment on impact to cause maximum bodily injury— are needed domestically.
According to Gary Marbut, founder and director of the Montana Shooting Sports Association: “The ammo shortage is nationwide, and pretty much for all calibers. The shortage also includes ammunition components (brass, powder, primers and bullets) and all reloading equipment and supplies.
Marbut cites heavy federal government purchases, stressing an already-stressed marketplace, as part of the problem. The larger problem, he told us, results from classic economic “differences in elasticity between supply and demand,” as manufacturers try to meet the suddenly ramped up wants and needs of consumers. As they fail to do so, shortages occur, driving up prices.
“The supply side is relatively inelastic,” Marbut said. “Manufacturers cannot increase production more than 30 to 40 percent before they begin exhausting their component suppliers. The component suppliers can't expand…before they max out their material suppliers, all the way to the ends of the many supply chains.”
The demand side, though, Marbut explained, is highly “elastic,” driven by the psychological response of Americans to economic and political uncertainties. “One supplier,” Marbut told the Pioneer, “says he doesn't have a shortage of ammunition, but a serious surplus of customers.”
Imports of gun powder are down by about 50 percent, Marbut said, resulting from new regulations limiting the size of shipments. Only two plants in the U.S. manufacture “smokeless powder,” as modern gun powder is called, the General Dynamics plant in St. Marks, Florida, and the Alliant/ATK plant in Connecticut. All other smokeless powder consumed in the U.S. is imported. “Smokeless powder is the tightest potential bottleneck,” Marbut said “more so than bullets, brass or primers.”
We asked Darrel K., an ammunition reloader, former law enforcement officer, a former Federal Firearms Licensee, and a shopper at the Bozeman Wal-Mart’s sporting goods department (who requested a measure of anonymity) for his views on the reason behind the shortage. “Hoarding is the cause of the shortage, and distrust of the government is the cause of the hoarding,” he said. “People are afraid of what the government will do.”
Another avid shooter, who asked not to be identified, went so far as to say he thought “the United States is in a pre-revolutionary condition, where the citizens are afraid of the government and are hoarding ammunition in preparation for an eventual civil war.”
Supporting that opinion, a recent Fairleigh-Dickinson University PublicMind Poll found that 29 percent of Americans, a sizable minority, agreed with the statement: “In the next few years, an armed revolution might be necessary in order to protect our liberties.” By political party the results included, Democrats: 18 percent; Independents: 27 percent; and Republicans: 44 percent. Results were similar for men and women.
If the Fairleigh-Dickinson poll is an indication, a significant number of Americans may have been politically motivated to arm themselves over the last several years, and to hoard guns and ammo, fearing future events and seemingly engaging in an “arms race,” as it were, with the federal government, the result being a huge spike in sales.
In April, U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK) and Congressman Frank Lucas (R-OK) introduced in their respective chambers the Ammunition Management for More Obtainability (AMMO) Act of 2013. The legislation would require the GAO to issue a report on the purchasing of ammunition by federal agencies, except the Department of Defense, and its effect on the supply of ammunition available to the public.
The AMMO Act of 2013 would, of course, have to pass both houses of congress for it to become law.
In the meantime, here in Montana and across the country plinking has become a lot more expensive.