For more than four years, shooting enthusiasts have suffered through ammunition shortages that have often left shelves bare even at giant retailers such as Cabela’s.
Ammunition manufacturers say point blank the problem is a matter of supply and demand for certain calibers, but many shooters don’t buy such a simple answer.
“Every week I hear someone blame the federal government,” said George Orr, a clerk at the Spokane Valley White Elephant Store. “The latest rumor is that the Postal Service is buying a bunch of ammo.
“I called (Rep.) Cathy McMorris Rodgers’ office to see if it was true and the person who answered said, ‘We’ve heard that, too.’ They said they’d look into it, but I haven’t heard back.”
Ammunition manufacturers, such as ATK in Lewiston have been hounded so frequently from consumers and media, they’re posting FAQs about ammo shortages on their websites.
Like other companies, ATK referred The Spokesman-Review’s interview request to the National Shooting Sports Foundation.
Mike Bazinet, NSSF public affairs director, said he’s fielded about 100 ammunition-related media queries in the past month.
“The main questions?” he said: “What’s the cause of the ammo shortage? Is it abating?
Bazinet dismisses rumors that the federal Department of Homeland Security has been stocking up and hoarding ammunition.
“A federal report from the Government Accountability Office two months ago said DHS purchases actually are lower than in the past,” he said.
Recent news about the U.S. Postal Service stockpiling ammo was blown out of proportion on the Internet, he said.
“It was for a small law enforcement arm of postal inspectors, not for mail carriers,” he said, noting the purchases were insignificant to the market.
Bazinet said the bottom line for ammunition shortages is consumer demand. Increased sales triggered even more demand as shooters stockpiled as much ammunition as they could get their hands on, he said.
“Our son is going through hunter education so we got him a .22 rifle,” said Mary Beth Donelan of Spokane Valley. “We buy shells anytime we can find them; we have friends who buy them for us whenever they can.
“Stores have limited sales to a box (100 rounds) at a time, when they have supply,” she said, “But I hear some are starting to sell a brick (500 rounds) at a time.”
The ammunition sales frenzy also is linked to record-setting sales of firearms in recent years.
“When people buy firearms, they tend to take them to the range and shoot them,” Bazinet said. “They don’t just buy a handgun and put it in a drawer with a box of shells. They want to try it out, practice and shoot for recreation.”
The most popular round is the .22 caliber.
Used by virtually every shooter from plinking cans in a field to international marksmanship competition, the .22 has trained more shooters than any other caliber.
Manufacturers have introduced various platforms in .22 caliber, Bazinet said. In other words, a shooter can practice with a gun that looks, weighs and feels like an AR-15 rifle or 9mm handgun while firing .22 caliber ammo that features less recoil, noise and expense.
“In most regions, supply and demand is coming back into balance, but demand is still high for the .22 long-rifle cartridge. When people see it available, they don’t buy a box; they buy a brick or more if they can.”
Ammunition companies apparently see the high demand as a surge rather than a trend, Bazinet said.
“Ammo makers have added shifts and people and converted space,” he said. “One manufacturer opened a new plant, but for the most part they view the demand as a curve that will come back down.”
Although the spike in sales of guns and ammunition is perhaps longer lasting that anyone might have predicted, the cause is not a mystery. It’s the rumors bordering hysteria that swelled with the election of President Barack Obama and spiked again with his re-election and talk of gun legislation after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in Newtown, Conn.
“It started at the federal level,” Bazinet said. “People became concerned they weren’t going to have the access they once had for products and demand for those products went up.” Applications for concealed carry permits also have been increasing for years, he added.
“As fear of federal legislation receded, some states were passing legislation on firearms that continued the concerns.
“Only in the first two months of 2014 have firearms sales started to slow.”