A run on bullets

  • Article by: DAVID A. FAHRENTHOLD and FREDRICK KUNKLE , Washington Post
  • Updated: November 3, 2009 - 7:39 PM

Whatever the reason, be it economics or dark suspicions, gun owners bought about 12 billion rounds of ammunition in the past year.

WASHINGTON - In a year of job losses and foreclosures, Americans have spent record-breaking amounts of money on guns and ammunition. The most obvious sign of their demand: empty ammunition shelves. At points during the past year, bullets have been selling faster than factories could make them.

Gun owners have bought about 12 billion rounds of ammunition in the past year, industry officials estimate. That's up from 7 billion to 10 billion in a recent years.

The explanation for the run on bullets lies partly in economics: Once rounds were scarce, people hoarded them, which made them scarcer.

But the rush for bullets, like this year's increase in gun sales, also says something about how suspicious the two sides in the gun-control debate are of each other, even at a time when the issue is on Washington's back burner.

The run started, observers say, as people heeded warnings from the gun-rights lobby that a new Democratic administration would make bullets more expensive or harder to get. Now that the shortage is starting to ease, gun-control groups are voicing their own dark worries about stockpiled ammunition.

"We've had people buy ammunition for calibers they don't even have the gun for: 'Oh, I want to get this gun eventually. And when I get it, ammunition may be hard to get,' " said Michael Tenny, who runs a Fort Worth, Texas-based Internet sporting goods store.

Tenny said that some of his ammunition tripled in price but that he still sold it.

It was already a political truism that Democrats prompt sales of both guns and ammo. The U.S. government taxes both to support wildlife conservation, and those receipts jumped after Bill Clinton was elected in 1992 and after Democrats retook Congress in 2006.

But the spike under President Obama seems to be on a different scale: The receipts are on pace to set a record in 2009, according to Treasury Department data, with tax revenue due from guns up 42 percent and revenue due from ammunition at 49 percent.

The increase in gun buying during the past year explains a large part of the increase in ammunition sales, experts say -- but probably not all of it.

They say that bullets were bought not just by new gun owners but also by those who already owned weapons. And they say bullet sales might have increased even faster if supply had kept up with demand.

Bullet makers say the reasons for these shortages include the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which have made bullet components such as copper and brass more expensive.

For gun owners, the run on ammunition has created shortages and price increases on everything from cheap .22-caliber bullets used for target shooting to the expensive hollow-point 9mm rounds bought for home defense.

The high sales have alarmed some anti-gun groups. Josh Sugarmann of the Violence Policy Center said he worries about a revival of the anti-government militia movement of the Clinton era. "This is a pattern that is repeating itself, and it is a pattern that has tremendous risk attached to it," Sugarmann said.

But gun-rights groups say the buyers are law-abiding and responding to legitimate concerns. "I think it's Katrina. I think it's terrorism. I think it's crime. And I also think that it's people worrying about [whether] they'll be attacked by politicians," said Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the National Rifle Association. "They're suspicious, and justifiably so."

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