By David A. Fahrenthold and Fredrick Kunkle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 3, 2009; A03
In a year of job losses, foreclosures and bag lunches, Americans have spent record-breaking amounts of money on guns and ammunition. The most obvious sign of their demand: empty ammunition shelves.
At points during the past year, bullets have been selling faster than factories could make them.
Gun owners have bought about 12 billion rounds of ammunition in the past year, industry officials estimate. That's up from 7 billion to 10 billion in a normal year.
It has happened, oddly, at a time when the two concerns that usually make people buy guns and bullets -- crime and increased gun control -- seem less threatening than usual.
The explanation for the run on bullets lies partly in economics: Once rounds were scarce, people hoarded them, which made them scarcer.
But the rush for bullets, like this year's increase in gun sales, also says something about how suspicious the two sides in the gun-control debate are of each other, even at a time when the issue is on Washington's back burner.
The run started, observers say, as people heeded warnings from the gun-rights lobby that a
new Democratic administration would make bullets more expensive or harder to get. Now that the shortage is starting to ease, gun-control groups are voicing their own dark worries about stockpiled ammunition.
In between, in the 12 months since last October, gun shops sold enough bullets to give every American 38 of them.
"We've had people buy ammunition for calibers they don't even have the gun for: 'Oh, I want to get this gun eventually. And when I get it, ammunition may be hard to get,' " said Michael Tenny, who runs a Fort Worth-based Internet sporting goods store called Cheaper Than Dirt.
Tenny said some of his ammunition tripled in price, but he still sold it: "It's just like playoff tickets."The Obama factor
It was already a political truism that Democrats prompt sales of both guns and ammo. The U.S. government taxes both to support wildlife conservation, and those receipts jumped after Bill Clinton was elected in 1992 and after Democrats retook Congress in 2006.
But the spike under Obama seems to be on a different scale: The receipts are on pace to set a record in 2009, according to Treasury Department data, with tax revenue due from guns up 42 percent and revenue due from ammunition at 49 percent. Recently, analysts have said earnings reports from gunmakers seem to show demand for weapons slackening.
The increase in gun buying during the past year explains a large part of the increase in ammunition sales to the private market, experts on the industry say -- but probably not all of it.
They say that bullets were bought not just by new gun owners but also by those who already owned weapons. And they say bullet sales might have increased even faster if supply had kept up with demand.
Bullet makers say the reasons for these shortages include the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which have made bullet components such as copper and brass more expensive.
For gun owners in the Washington area and elsewhere, the run on ammunition has created shortages and price increases on everything from cheap .22-caliber bullets used for target shooting to the expensive hollow-point 9mm rounds bought for home defense.
In Maryland and Virginia, as in many states, anyone over 21 can buy an unlimited amount of ammunition without a special license or background check. The District has tighter rules for its one licensed ammunition dealer: Gun owners can buy bullets only in the same caliber as their registered guns.Reason for alarm?
The high sales have alarmed some anti-gun groups. Josh Sugarmann of the Violence Policy Center said he worries about a revival of the anti-government militia movement of the Clinton era.
"This is a pattern that is repeating itself, and it is a pattern that has tremendous risk attached to it," Sugarmann said.
But gun-rights groups say the buyers are law-abiding, and responding to legitimate concerns.
"I think it's Katrina. I think it's terrorism. I think it's crime. And I also think that it's people worrying about [whether] they'll be attacked by politicians," said Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the National Rifle Association. "They're suspicious, and justifiably so."
But the most recent FBI crime statistics, from 2008, showed that rates of violent crime were the lowest since 1989. The numbers for this year have not been assembled yet, but police groups say violent crime still appears to be down, although there may have been an uptick in property crimes.
As for gun control, experts say that far from being under attack, groups opposed to it have won a remarkable string of victories. Clinton's ban on assault weapons expired in 2004. The U.S. Supreme Court struck down the District's restrictions on handguns, ruling that the Second Amendment creates an individual right to gun ownership.
Under Obama, the White House has said it wants to stop the illegal flow of U.S. guns to Mexican drug cartels, and it directed Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. to review the way current gun laws are being enforced.
But a spokesman said that "the president respects and supports the Second Amendment and the tradition of gun ownership in this country." In the biggest gun-related debate of his tenure, Obama sided with gun groups, signing a bill to loosen the rules on firearms in national parks.
Still, in interviews with gun owners and ammunition dealers, many said the run on bullets was sparked by worries about what Obama might do.
"It was just logical, based on his record as a state senator and his record in the U.S. Senate," Dave Sugg, 37, a consultant in Ashburn, said after taking target practice with a .22-caliber semi-automatic Ruger rifle at a shooting range.
Research director Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.