I have an ammunition stockpile. Please don’t be scared.
As a third-generation gun collector and shooting enthusiast, I’ve learned how easy it is to burn through a lot of rounds in a short amount of time. Ten trips to the firing line with an AR-15? That’s a relaxing Saturday afternoon, and a good way to stay proficient and circumspect when it comes to shooting. It’s also 100 rounds of .223 Remington, 30 bucks worth of ammo. If you can find it — which, given the way the ammunition supplies work, is no sure thing.
That’s why in my house and my father’s — we pool our shooting resources — you can find thousands of rounds of .223, .22 long rifle, .45, and .30 ammunition at any given moment. Some of it was bought a box at a time; some of it came in trade with friends for Ruger target pistols, holsters, and back issues of Shotgun News. Our cache of black-powder rounds (for antique guns and replicas), we “loaded” ourselves, making the ammo out of basic components.
Americans who are uninitiated in firearms ownership tend to see ammunition stockpiling as a mark of paranoia or a ticking time bomb, affiliating it (sometimes accurately) with militias and mass shooters. But on the individual level, stockpiling goes on all the time, driven by the subtleties of a vast and dynamic commodity market that make stockpiling a perfectly logical behavior for an average gun owner. As with any market, the one for ammunition has big corporations, lobbies, and private speculators trying to goose supply or predict future demand for personal gain. There are panics and runs and hedges that, whether based on facts on misinformation, have the effect of materially increasing the costs of firearms use for lower- and middle-income Americans.
The cost and availability of bullets, and not of guns themselves, really are the primary limiting financial factors for gun ownership. Ammunition for a .40-caliber pistol — a popular choice for personal defense — will retail for somewhere between a quarter and 50 cents per round, and those are, by definition, bulk prices. There are literally hundreds of websites devoted to tracking ammo prices and flagging sales, many of them apolitical, including The Firearms Blog’s periodic updates (downloadable in spreadsheet form) and findmeammo.com.
The one constant in every fluctuation of ammunition availability and pricing is the deployment of FUD, or “fear, uncertainty, and doubt.”
Much of this infrastructure is new; it rose out of several recent nationwide ammunition shortages. The first started following the economic meltdown of 2008: Like those of gold or any other precious, tangible commodities, ammunition sales tend to go up when financial markets slump, and gun owners bank rounds that can be spent either in target practice or as a kind of currency, eagerly accepted by other gun owners who have a set of tires they’re looking to offload. Some online gun suppliers give you a credit on your purchases if you send them your brass ammunition casings, which they can recycle into new ammo. The fact that it’s legal to transfer ammo across state lines, when the same deal would have to go through a federally licensed dealer if it involved a firearm instead, only makes ammo more useful as gun-world wampum.
But there was another factor at play in that 2008 shortage: the election of Barack Obama, and widespread fears that the new Democratic president would crack down on firearms ownership. The one constant in every fluctuation of ammunition availability and pricing is the deployment of FUD, or “fear, uncertainty, and doubt,” a marketing tool used liberally by gun lobbyists and gun-law reformists alike. To this day, the NRA and other pro-gun groups continue to scare members into believing that Obama is a gun-banning fascist prepared to go house-to-house to take their rights away.
Gun-safety advocates often feed directly into this fear with ideas to further limit the ammo market, giving gun lobbyists the grist they need for their latest scaremongering press releases. Some reform proposals, such as one to require ID from online purchasers who buy more than 1,000 rounds in five consecutive days, seem innocuous to all but the most curmudgeonly of Second Amendment Men. But exorbitant taxes on ammo sales and direct limits on availability can be punitive to everyday gun owners already paying handsome sums to pursue their hobby. Absent clear evidence that limits on ammo sales reduce gun violence — something that deserves more study but is yet to be proven — well-intentioned gun reform advocates help fuel the insecurity that drives ammo hoarding — which, in turn, makes ammo even more valuable.
And it doesn’t take actual policy proposals to spark the panic-buying of the set of gun-lovers whose commitment can be a little scary: preppers and Oathkeepers and self-identifying minutemen who see a jackbooted-government zombie apocalypse behind every contrail or presidential executive order. It makes some sense that post–Sandy Hook calls for better gun laws and a proposal by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms earlier this year to limit certain types of “armor-piercing” .223-caliber rounds both led to major runs and shortages of ammo stocks. But internet-fueled conspiracy theories have had the same effect, the most famous (and false) one being the 2012–2013 panic that followed the rumor that the Department of Homeland Security was buying up ammo to keep it out of the citizenry’s hands in preparation for civil unrest and martial law.
Along with those panicky buyers determined to hold hardware in reserve for themselves, more even-keeled gun owners and sport-shooters can also quickly be priced out by profit-driven speculators. YouTube is littered with videos by gun guys grumbling about ammo made rare and pricey, a surprising number of which blame the opportunists who snatch up supplies and resell them online for a premium. In this sense, ammo is like crude oil; there’s a huge user demand, sure, but costs are driven as much by traders betting on future prices as they are by consumers. Time the market right, and an ammo trader can see his margin jump significantly. Amid the heightened demand for .223 rounds brought on by the ATF’s proposed regulations, one California seller netted $1,000 for a 1,000-count box, a dollar a round (a price that made the ammo-as-currency phenomenon freakily literal). After the agency scrapped the rule change, the same seller had to settle for $850 for a second box of the same size, as chronicled by Reveal News.
Boy Scouts can end up paying more than double the price for a range day than they did in 2008.
What about ammunition manufacturers? They claim they’re producing as fast as they can and still failing to meet demand — and for that, they blame hoarders too. “People walk into the store, they don’t see as much as they want, so they take everything they can get,” Steven Hornady, president of leading ammo company Hornady Manufacturing, told NRA listeners last year. “The next guy who comes in can’t get anything, so he panics.” Then the panicked guy turns to a speculator, ensuring that prices on the secondhand market stay high.
That said, the industry isn’t going out of its way to keep shooters well-stocked if it means lower profits. One bizarre recent phenomenon has been a shortage of cheap rimfire ammo like the ubiquitous .22-caliber long-rifle round — plinkers that are vastly more common for target shooting than for criminal activities. The reason for the scarcity, the NRA says, is that as demand for all calibers has gone up, manufacturers have found that there’s no financial upside to expanding .22LR production: The rounds don’t cost that much less than other ammunition to produce, but they’re so small and so cheap in comparison to handgun and sport-rifle ammunition that a .22 producer’s profit margins will be drastically lower than if they churned out bigger bullets. As a result, Boy Scouts can end up paying more than double the price for a range day than they did in 2008: A diminutive round the length of a quarter has jumped from an average price of 5 cents to 12 cents. If you can find any for sale in the first place: On any given day, an online search for .22LR at two of the top ammo retailers — Walmart and Cabelas — might come up empty.
Panic-buying, speculation, and supply shortages have gotten so bad, in fact, that Walmart, which a lot of gun owners rely on for low-cost ammunition, has occasionally had to institute limits on purchases to prevent hoarders depleting their supplies. Walmart associates reportedly have been telling customers that they’ve resorted to putting ammo stocks out on the shelves “at random times of the day” to prevent the early-morning “zombies” from taking it all.
The politics of gun laws can be so contentious and require so much attention from those invested in the fight that it’s easy to lose sight of how factors like economics can also shape the positions that everyday gun people stake out. Not all stockpiles are created equal. But as my dad and I can tell you from experience, when the shelves are steadily emptying of the ammo you need, you’re not thinking about disabusing your more hardline friends of the latest “confiscation” meme. You’re counting your remaining ammo stash and facing a choice: Either risk going without or paying through the nose later, or start hoarding now.
[Photo: Mitch Barrie]