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.
Even as the military's need for ammunition has soared, domestic police agencies have increased their firepower in light of catastrophes that once seemed unimaginable, including the terror attacks of 2001. Many departments have provided patrol officers with variations on the AR-15 and similar rifles that fire .223-caliber rounds -- the same round fired by the military's M-16 and M-4 assault rifles.
Reacting in part to shortages experienced by police in New Orleans after the hurricane there in 2005, then-D.C. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey ordered his department to keep 200,000 rounds on hand -- a stockpile that was dubbed the "Katrina reserve," said Lt. Sam Golway, commander of D.C. police firearms training division.
"What we're seeing is orders for law enforcement ammunition that have increased 40 percent in just the last year," said Brian Grace, a spokesman for Alliant Techsystems, a leading supplier for police departments across the country. The company plans a $5 million expansion to increase manufacturing capacity at two plants, he said.
Alliant, which operates the government's Lake City Army Ammunition Plant in Missouri, is the government's primary supplier of small-caliber ammunition. The company is also a leading supplier for police departments across the country. In April 2000, the Lake City plant had 650 employees and produced 350 million rounds a year, he said. Today, he said, it runs at full capacity 24 hours a day, employing 2,500 workers and producing 1.2 billion rounds a year.
In Loudoun, sheriff's deputies recently stopped using an Alliant-made .223-caliber round at the firing range because of delivery delays of nearly a year. The agency switched to a Winchester-made round that costs 2 1/2 times as much, Gutshall said.
In Anne Arundel County, backlogs of up to a year on orders have police officials on tenterhooks. "The suppliers don't give us an answer of when and if we'll get those rounds, so we have to just place our order and hope for the best," said Cpl. Mark Shawkey, a police spokesman.
Anne Arundel police spent $48,000 on ammunition this year and project a 15 to 20 percent increase next year. As a result, the department no longer supplies ammunition for officers' off-duty weapons. The department is considering collaborating with other police agencies facing similar problems, Shawkey said.
"It's a serious issue that we're concerned about," he said. "Right now, it's not affecting us in terms of keeping up our training standards, but we're meeting with other vendors and getting together with other police agencies to see if we can pool our resources."
D.C. police, like many large urban agencies, have coped with the shortage by increasing the size of their orders and placing them six months in advance, officials said.