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Scott: The case of the missing ammo

June 7, 2013

I’ve long since lost count of the number of people who’ve emailed, called or stopped me in stores to ask about what happened to the ammunition that’s not on store shelves these days. Honesty forces me to admit that my first thought was that the ammo shortage was being greatly exaggerated. Silly-sounding rumors accusing the federal government of buying up all of the nation’s civilian ammunition in order to effect de facto gun control did little to change my mind.


Then a friend wanted to buy some .45 ACP from me, and I visited the Outdoor Guide’s website to help me determine a fair price. To my surprise — make that shock — I discovered that the company had virtually no ammunition available for sale. Neither, I learned from personal observation, did our local Walmart.


I was still digesting this information when the story broke that the IRS had been targeting conservative groups with names that included any of a number of key words, one of which was Constitution. Fast on the heels of this revelation came reports that the Justice Department had seized both the business and personal telephone records of a number of news reporters. Since these stories had been verified, could the ammo buy-up rumor be true as well?


Thankfully, no. According to the National Rifle Association’s Institute for Legislative Action — a group that’s never shy about reporting even the slightest hint of an attack on the Second Amendment — there is no evidence that the federal government is deliberately trying to limit the amount of ammunition available to the public.


The feds do buy nonmilitary ammo in seemingly huge quantities, but the NRA/ILA’s report on the subject notes that many of the numbers being bandied about on the Internet are multi-year contracts covering “tens of thousands of armed federal employees.” Furthermore, some of these contracts are in the proposal stage and are unlikely to be approved. But even if they were, the total amount of nonmilitary ammo purchased by the federal government accounts for only about three percent of the total available to the general public.


So what is really going on here?


At any given time, moment in time, the supply curve for ammunition is what economists call “inelastic.” This means that infrastructure constraints ranging all the way from raw materials through component parts to loaded shells and cartridges make it extremely difficult for manufacturers to react quickly to substantial increases in demand for their products.


Conversely, civilian ammunition’s demand curve is extremely elastic. Demand has always fluctuated with the time of the year, the waxing or waning of the popularity of specific hunting or shooting sports, the introduction or discontinuance of specific models of firearms, etc. Over the past several years, however, uncertainties about the country’s economic and political future have played an ever-increasing role in the demand for civilian ammunition. After the 2012 elections, these uncertainties became not just a driving force, but the driving force behind an increase in demand so exponential it’s become a self-fulfilling doomsday prophecy.


Both American and foreign ammunition manufacturers are retooling as quickly as possible to meet the new reality, but what can you and I do in the meantime?


I think each of us should begin by taking an inventory of each type (gauge/caliber, bullet/shot charge, lead/nontoxic and so on) of ammo we have on hand right now. The next step is to compare those numbers with the specific amounts that we’ll need for the next year. If the amounts on hand and the amounts needed are roughly equal, we can smile and quit worrying. If any of the amounts exceed the anticipated need, there will never be a better time to sell the surplus to another hunter or shooter.


But what if we come up short? My Plan A would be to try to buy what I needed from friends or fellow members of my gun club. Failing that, it’s highly likely the super-sized retailers (Bass Pro, Cabela’s, Outdoor Guide, Dicks Sporting Goods, etc.) will receive a disproportionate share of any available ammo even after supplies begin to increase, and it’s also likely that these outlets’ websites will be better bets than their stores. Online shopping also provides the advantage of being able to back order products without being charged until the product arrives at the point of sale.


It’s been said that perception drives reality. Given the fact that, even when he’s innocent, the public’s perception of President Obama’s politics does more to increase the number of firearms and, by extension, ammunition in American homes than the combined efforts of all of the country’s hunting and shooting organizations. Who knows, if he could serve a third term, maybe the United States would end up with universal firearms ownership like Switzerland.