After failing to pass stricter gun laws, has the federal government moved to create a shortage of arms and ammunition? Or, fearing stricter gun laws, did gun owners clear the shelves?
In January, the U.S. Postal Service sent out — via the General Service Administration’s Federal Business Opportunities website — a solicitation for small arms ammunition. This unusual invitation helped spur a talking point that many conservative websites have latched on to: since the administration’s failed attempts at passing stricter gun laws, the federal government is stockpiling ammunition at incredible rates in order to create a false scarcity of ammunition and enact a de facto gun control measure.
Those who argue this line point to media coverage of seemingly out-of-place ammunition purchases by the executive branch, such as the Social Security Administration’s request for 174,000 bonded jacket hollow-point bullets, the Department of Agriculture’s request for 320,000 rounds, the Department of Homeland Security’s request for 450 million rounds, the FBI’s request for 100 million rounds, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s request for 46,000 rounds.
“NOAA — really? They have a need?” argued Philip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League. “One just doesn’t know why they’re doing this.”
“The problem is, all these agencies have their own SWAT teams, their own police departments, which is crazy. In theory, it was supposed to be the U.S. marshals [sic] that was the armed branch for the federal government.”
If this were true, it would be a controversy worthy of serious condemnation. However, evidence presented by those opposed to this argument suggest that there may be an alternative explanation.
The ammunition shortage of 2008-2014 reflects two consumer-grade ammunitions shortages that hit the United States from late 2008 to the end of 2010, and from December 2012 to the present. Primers for handloaded ammunition, cartridges for most popular semi-automatic rifles and pistols and previously-unavailable calibers — the .380 Auto, the .40 S&W and the .45ACP — as well as some of the cheaper calibers, such as the .22 LR — were in short supply during the shortage or sold out. Despite assurances from manufacturers that production would increase, the calibers remained out of stock, leading some to speculate on the interference of an outside force.
This proved not to be so. The confusion about this “controversy” revolves around the confluence of three separate misunderstandings of how the federal government works. First, in a February Governmental Accountability Office analysis, federal ammunition purchasing actually dropped since 2009. The GAO found that the DHS, which procured the largest stash of ammunition, spent only $19.2 million on ammunition in 2013, compared to $33.8 million in 2009. The actual bullet count purchased in 2013 dropped by 49 million from 2009’s tally. The GAO indicated that the DHS — which has 70,000 armed personnel, compared to the Department of Justice’s 69,000 — is using its ammunition to meet its quarterly firearm training and qualification requirements.
This brings up the second misunderstanding. There is currently no single agency charged with providing security to the whole of the federal government. The U.S. Marshal Service, as Van Cleave pointed out, is the enforcement arm of the federal court system and is charged with prisoner transport, fugitive apprehension and carrying out bench orders.
Any agency’s security is the responsibility of the agency itself, and all federal agencies have at least a minimum level of armed security available. The USPS, for example, maintains both a police force of 500 uniformed officers to protect critical and vulnerable postal facilities and the U.S. Postal Inspection Service which — after the Marshal Service — is the oldest law enforcement agency in the federal government.
Each of the federal government’s law enforcement agencies are charged with the enforcement of specific segments of the federal code. While the FBI — via authorization from the U.S. Attorneys — can investigate any violation of federal law, in practice, the FBI deals with specific “priorities” of national security and interest.
Finally, evidence suggests that the shortage was actually created by the gun buyers themselves. The two ammunition shortages line up with the last two major threats to gun rights — the 2008 election of Barack Obama and the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting — that triggered a wave of proposed anti-gun legislation. In response to these two incidents, gun owners stocked up, clearing the shelves of ammunition and firearms in anticipation of a future lockdown.
On its website, Federal Premium, a leading manufacturer of ammunition, states, “We are currently experiencing high demand for our products. We appreciate your patience and support and remain committed to serving all of our customers, from hunters and sport shooters to those who protect our country and our streets.”
“Most of the ammunition we make at Remington goes to the consumer market. Our supplies, therefore, haven’t been affected by government contracts,” said Scott Blackwell, president of Freedom Group, the owner of Remington Arms, Bushmaster Firearms International and DPMS Panther Arms. “It’s clear to us that any lack of supply in the marketplace has been from consumer demand for our quality products. To meet this increased demand we’re investing and growing.”
Steve Hornady, president of Hornady Manufacturing, an ammunition manufacturer, said, “We’re working as hard as we can to get as much out as possible…. People walk into the store, they don’t see as much as they want so they take everything they can get. The next guy who comes in can’t get anything, so he panics…. But there is no government conspiracy.”
However, there is the question of why there isn’t a universal security apparatus for the whole of the federal government. Without study into the practical aspects of a single uniformed armed force for the whole of the executive branch, it is unclear if consolidation would help or hinder the process.
The question of why the NOAA has armed personnel — the NOAA operates the NOAA Commissioned Officer Corps, one of the seven uniformed armed forces in the United States– is still a valid one, even if it can’t be easily answered.