Police Feel Wartime Pinch on Ammo

Officer Gordon Williams shoots at the Montgomery County police range, where training is affected by the need to save bullets during U.S. military action in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Officer Gordon Williams shoots at the Montgomery County police range, where training is affected by the need to save bullets during U.S. military action in Iraq and Afghanistan. (By James M. Thresher -- The Washington Post)
By Candace Rondeaux
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 28, 2007

The U.S. military's soaring demand for small-arms ammunition, fueled by two wars abroad, has left domestic police agencies less able to quickly replenish their supplies, leading some to conserve rounds by cutting back on weapons training, police officials said.

To varying degrees, officials in Montgomery, Loudoun and Anne Arundel counties said, they have begun rationing or making other adjustments to accommodate delivery schedules that have changed markedly since the military campaigns began in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"Before the war, lag time from order to delivery was three to four months; now it's six months to a year," said James Gutshall, property supervisor for the Loudoun Sheriff's Office. "I purchased as much as I could this year because I was worried it would be a problem."

Montgomery police began limiting the amount of ammunition available to officers on the practice range a little more than year ago, said Lucille Baur, a county police spokeswoman. The number of cases a group of officers can use in a training session has been cut from 10 to three.

Gene Voegtlin, legislative counsel for the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), said dozens of chiefs at a meeting of the organization two weeks ago agreed that scarcity of ammunition is a widespread problem. He said rifle ammunition, which is used by the military and many police agencies, was a particular concern.

"It mostly has to with delays where it's impacting training more than anything else," Voegtlin said. "The chiefs are doing what they can to adjust to it."

No law enforcement agency contacted by The Washington Post reported running out of ammunition.

But some expressed concern that a prolonged shortage could eventually affect officers' competence as marksmen. Practice with live ammunition is a crucial part of any police training regime, experts say. A lack of practice can translate into diminished ability in the field, where accuracy and speed can mean the difference between life and death, they say.

"It's critical," said Scott Knight, who chairs the IACP's firearms committee. "We're talking about the use of deadly force, and the skilled use of deadly force is paramount to any police agency. It is like any other skill, so it must be practiced regularly."

Such training is considered vital to limit the incidence of officer-involved shootings, as well as to prepare officers for those times when they confront armed assailants. Experts say many agencies and the military increased emphasis on marksmanship training after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to better prepare for a war that was no longer confined to traditional battlefields.

Knight, who is also chief of the 24-person Chaska Police Department near Minneapolis, said small agencies are struggling more because they generally order in smaller quantities and operate with less flexible budgets. Knight said he is concerned that some departments may be "shooting less because of the ammunition shortages."

The scarcity of ammunition has also driven up the cost, presenting police agencies and gun owners with another challenge. That problem has been compounded by a sharp increase in the price of copper and other metals, a surge that is a result of demand from booming economies in such nations as China and India.

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