If you don’t own guns or particularly care about guns, you probably had no idea that the United States is currently in the throes of the Great Ammunition Shortage of 2021.
But in the gun world, it’s all anyone can talk about.
There’s an entire subreddit dedicated to flagging locations that have recently restocked their ammo supplies. Gun owners have flocked to remote sporting goods stores in pursuit of ammo, only to find dozens of other hopeful customers lining up outside.
And the #ammoshortage hashtag on TikTok is full of people gazing solemnly at barren ammunition sections, or bragging about their impressive stockpiles of ammunition—or offering creative workarounds to the shortage, like running over bobcats with their cars instead of shooting them, and strangling wild turkeys, since you can’t, you know, shoot them.
A perfect storm of factors led to the national ammo drought, which is forecast to drag out for at least another year.
Americans began buying guns at a record pace in 2020 after COVID-19 hit the U.S. Between March and September 2020, gun sales jumped by 91 percent over the same period the previous year. And the approximately 15.1 million new guns needed ammo. But there were manufacturing issues. International shipments of materials used in ammunition were delayed amid restrictions. Ammo and firearm manufacturers were required to temporarily halt operations in certain states where they weren’t deemed essential business.
All the while, demand kept climbing. National unrest after the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis cop (and conspiracy theories about that unrest coming into the suburbs) created another run on guns and ammo. And when Joe Biden won the presidential election and vowed to pursue gun control, demand surged again.
“People have purchased firearms at a record number over the last year. And in addition to that, we’ve not gotten resupplied on firearms. And we also haven’t gotten resupplied on ammunition,” said John Taylor, manager of Elite Firearms, a gun store in Las Vegas. “And these people who purchased firearms took them out, fired them— and then found out that they used up all their ammo.”
Taylor said he began noticing an uptick in demand for guns in early 2020.
“At the beginning of the pandemic, when we saw China dragging families from their homes—when those news clips hit the U.S., it started a panic,” said Taylor, referring to viral videos showing people in hazmat suits taking residents from their homes in the city of Kunshan, Jiangsu Province, to quarantine or isolate. “And then when we had the toilet paper shortage, that added to the panic.”
And because ammunition is scarce, it’s also more expensive. Before the shortage, a box of 9mm rounds might have gone for about $9.99. Now, you’re looking at upwards of $35 for a box of 50 9mm rounds. Taylor said some people are profiteering off of the shortage by jacking their prices way up: “I have an associate who just purchased 1,000 rounds of 9mm, and it cost him $700.”
The situation doesn’t seem likely to be resolved anytime soon. Taylor said his store has been advised that manufacturers won’t be making regular ammunition deliveries for a year. “They are so backlogged,” Taylor said.
He said that at first, customers were “pretty upset” about not being able to obtain ammunition. “Now it’s more like, ‘OK I’ve called every other shop in town and you’re telling me the same thing,’” said Taylor. “It’s almost become a situation where they’ve semi accepted it.”
For Garrison Burge, who manages Beech Grove Firearms, a gun store just outside Indianapolis, he’s dealing with another spike in demand after the recent mass shooting at a FedEx facility nearby.
“Any time there’s a national tragedy that happens, or any type of shooting, there’s a lot of gun owners wanting to purchase firearms, which leads to them needing ammunition,” Burge told VICE News. “Because of those incidents, there’s been a large demand in ammo. But unfortunately, the amount of materials are not there to push out the quantity that’s needed.” (FBI data showed that background checks soared the week of March 15-21 after the deadly shooting rampage at massage parlors near Atlanta, making it the highest week on record since 1998.)
Eugene, a 31-year-old from the D.C. area, who declined to share his last name, said he began to notice ammo prices creeping up last summer. “It became a game of hunting for ‘regular’-price ammo and snagging it before it went out of stock,” he said. At first he was buying online, but the online stores with reasonable prices were selling out fast. “I did switch to looking in physical stores,” Eugene said. He recalled going into a large sporting goods store in July and seeing the shooting section completely bare other than hunting guns.
“No Glocks, no AR-15s, no Mossberg shotguns or pistol-caliber carbines, nothing,” said Eugene. “The shelves where the ammo should be were also totally bare. I said to my buddy at the time that it genuinely felt like the first 10 minutes of a disaster movie. We couldn't believe how empty it was.”
Eugene said he returned to the same store out of curiosity a few months later and got to chatting with a couple guys who were waiting around in the store. “I pretty quickly found out that a truck had just arrived that might have ammo on it,” Eugene said. “That rumor spread so quickly that by the time they brought the ammo out to sell to us 20 minutes later, our group of three or four had turned into 50. They had to organize us in a line like it was Black Friday.”
Long, snaking lines near gun stores rumored to have fresh supplies of ammo have become a regular occurrence.
Other gun-related industries have also had to make adjustments in light of the shortage.
For example, the niche sport of “cowboy action shooting,” which aims to preserve the traditions of the Old West by competing with guns like single-action revolvers, old-time shotguns, and pistol-caliber lever action rifles. Competitors are required to wear costumes and adopt aliases that would not be out of place in an old Western movie.
“The shortage is something that affects our sport quite a bit actually,” said Corina Novo, aka “Ruby Ruthless,” who works as an administrator for the Single Action Shooting Society (SASS). The biggest issue they’ve been having is getting their hands on the standard size of primers, a critical but little-understood component to ammunition. As a result of the shortage, some local competitions have switched over to .22-caliber, which is typically reserved for junior shooters because it’s a lot easier.
The ammunition shortage has also posed a bit of an obstacle for militia organizing. VICE News spoke with Reddit user Tactischink, 21, about his efforts to form a militia in his home state of Minnesota. He says that even if some of his friends were open to the idea of forming a militia, the cost of doing so was prohibitive. “They’re like, OK, that does sound kind of badass, but it’s a lot of money,” Tactischink said. “There’s a huge ammo shortage, so ammo is very, very expensive. I mean, we’re talking a dollar a round. If you want to buy a thousand rounds, you’re looking at a thousand dollars, which is a ton of money for people that are younger like myself.”
A day at the range might end up using about 800 rounds. “It’s a very expensive sport to get into,” he added.
The ammunition shortage is also being felt within some local police departments, who say that the steep price is cutting into their budgets allocated for training officers.
“Each officer is probably shooting anywhere from 100 rounds to 200 rounds each, so it adds up quite a bit,” Sheriff Brian McLean from Houghton County, Michigan, told Michigan Live earlier this month.
With no end in sight to the Great Ammo Shortage of 2021, at least there’s a bunch of creative workarounds on TikTok.
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