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The ammo boom is no dud

3/27/2009

As a growing number of gun shoppers are discovering these days, it's becoming easier to buy a gun than it is to purchase the ammunition for it. Shortages of popular handgun calibers in particular have dealers and customers fuming, and ammo makers have shifted their production lines into overdrive to keep up with the demand. How long will the "bullet bubble" last? That depends in large part on politics in Washington and in statehouses across the land, and the messages that various legislative efforts convey.

Concerns over what the election of Barack Obama portends for gun owners is the main cause for the inflated demand for ammunition. In fact, since last November's election ammunition has been flying off store shelves faster than you can say "microstamping," with sales increases topping 100 percent in many areas. Gun sales ramped up by 42 percent last November, but have cooled off slightly since. From Election Day to now, the monthly sales average for firearms has been about 29 percent higher than normal. February sales tailed off a bit, to slightly more than 23 percent over average, according to sales figures compiled by the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF).

Ted Novin, the NSSF's director of public affairs, says that the next report on ammunition sales won't be in until May, but there's enough anecdotal evidence to suggest more boom times for the gun crowd — literally and figuratively.

"From what we've heard, ammunition manufacturers are operating at full capacity in an attempt to keep up with demand," says Novin. "Gun owners are worried about taxes being added to ammo, or worried about new laws that will affect the production, and consequently the price, of ammunition. It's understandable; there are a lot of people in power now who have a long history of supporting bills that violate Second Amendment rights."

Valerie Peters, a spokesperson for Winchester Ammunition in East Alton, Ill., says her company's plant is running "24/7" in an attempt to keep up with demand.

"It seems that there has been a demand for all calibers since last fall," says Peters. "We're keeping production systems going around the clock and through the weekends."

Jim Rausher, co-owner of Joe's Sporting Goods in St. Paul, Minn., spends a lot of time talking with his customer and listening to their concerns when they sidle up to the cash register with handfuls of ammo boxes. Though most customers think that any attempts by the Obama administration and its legislative surrogates to circumvent the Second Amendment will be quashed, they're not so sure about the prospects for ammunition.

"A lot of my guys think that the government is going to tax ammo to the point that it gets ungodly expensive," says Rausher. "So they're buying ammo and putting it away — 9mm, .380, .38 Special, .40 S&W, .45 — all the popular stuff. I think they're probably on the right track. Something is coming; something is going to happen. Whether it's microstamping or non-lead bullets, ammo is going up in cost."

At Mark's Outdoor Sports in Birmingham, Ala., owner Mark Whitlock is nonplussed by what has apparently become a rush to hoard ammo.

"I've seen some strange things in the past 29 years in business but I never thought I'd see the day when I would make one order in one day for more ammo than I sold during all of the previous year," said Whitlock. "I'm doing that, knowing I won't get it, and also knowing that if I did, I could sell it all and be ordering more three days later."

Beside the popular handgun calibers such as 9mm and .380 (whose shortage might be due to the fact that ammo companies run it on the same production lines as the more popular 9mm), Mark's Outdoor Sports also is running low on even popular rifle loads such as .223, .30-06, .308 and .270.

"I had a guy come in my store who bought $5,000 worth of shotgun ammo for his bird hunting — this is in March. He's worried about ammo shortages too, but nothing like the handgun and rifle guys," observed Whitlock. "It's like a run on grocery stores when a hurricane is coming. It's milk-and-bread time, down to whatever you can get."

Al Russo, a spokesman for Remington Arms in Madison, N.C., echoes Whitlock's assessment of the irrational rush to buy ammunition, though he added that his company wasn't complaining.

"We underestimated the impact of a Democratic president; we didn't fully understand the 'fear factor' that would result among our best customers," says Russo. "Even if everything leveled off tomorrow, it would take 60 to 90 days for our production to normalize. We have no inventory, the trade has no inventory and the stores have no inventory. What's worse, the supply of reloading components has really dried up. There's a shortage of primers and bullets, so the reloaders are temporarily out of luck, too."

Industry spokespeople are reluctant to predict when the ammo-buying stampede will have run its course. Interestingly, though there is a shortage, the price of ammunition hasn't gone through the roof correspondingly. Russo puts the current increase rate at about 5 percent, though more for ammo manufactured overseas where supplies of components are often an issue even during normal times.

Is all the ammo-buying frenzy for naught? Do consumers have a misplaced distrust of politicians who, from a gun owner's perspective, just don't get it when it comes to the Second Amendment?

Last year, legislators in 20 states tried and failed to pass bills requiring ammo manufacturers to make bullets that were "microstamped" or serialized with codes that would identify the batches. Their premise was that ammo coding would make it easier for law enforcement agents to track down the sources of ammunition used in the commission of crimes. However, opponents argued that beyond driving manufacturing costs upward and requiring retailers to keep more records, such laws would have little deterrent effect on crimes committed by people who stole ammo or purchased it secondhand.

Though various lawmakers in New York, New Jersey, Hawaii, Virginia, Connecticut and Georgia have sponsored bills this spring to require serialized bullet codification or microstamping, it's doubtful that any will pass. Still, doubt isn't likely to deter ammo buyers.

Despite lots of saber rattling, a nuclear war between the United States and the former USSR was also doubtful back in the 60s, but that didn't keep people from building bomb shelters.