Since the day President Obama was elected, gun owners have been on an unprecedented buying spree, purchasing everything from .22 ammunition to every kind of semi-automatic firearm available.
Their fears are not unwarranted — especially because, for a while, the federal government seemed to be racing private owners to buy the ammo first.
Closer examination shows that some fears of federal activity on this front are overblown. Others, though, are deeply rooted in legitimate concerns.
While Obama claims to support “common-sense” gun laws, he has made high-profile public announcements telegraphing his anti-gun intentions and engaged in behind-the-scenes gun control — tweaking government regulations to deny gun rights to veterans, seeking the same for Social Security recipients, and using the ATF to ban certain types of popular ammo. Calling guns more dangerous than terrorism, Obama recently indicated he’ll devote the rest of his time as president to gun control.
Calling guns more dangerous than terrorism, Obama says he’ll devote the rest of his time as president to gun control.
But one event in particular fed fears of back-door government gun control: the unprecedented purchase of ammunition by the feds.
In early 2013, the Internet blazed with news that the Department of Homeland Security intended to purchase over 1.6 billion rounds of pistol and rifle ammunition. The order would fulfill DHS requirements for five years, reportedly. DHS has 55,471 employees authorized to carry firearms, which comes to about 5,800 rounds per year, per employee.
For perspective, during the first year of the war on terror, approximately 72 million rounds were expended in Iraq and another 21 million in Afghanistan — about 2,000 rounds per war fighter. Thus, giving DHS agents a much larger quota of 5,000 rounds did seem extreme.
Some people asserted the feds deliberately intended to dry up the private market for ammunition. Lawmakers demanded answers. Yet the overall requisition, in context, may not have been unreasonable.
The largest order, 750 million rounds, came from DHS’s Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC) for instruction purposes. Another 650 million rounds were slated for Inspections and Customs Enforcement, or ICE. FLETC public affairs director Peggy Dixon said at the time that the purchase request was “a ceiling. It does not mean that we will buy, or require, the full amounts of either contract.” FLETC in fact uses approximately 20 million training rounds per year, and overall, actual DHS purchases have declined continually since 2009. In 2014, DHS-planned purchases were 75.1 million rounds, down from 84.4 million in 2013.
But there was more. In 2012, the Social Security Administration published a requisition for 174,000 rounds of hollow point pistol ammo — a particularly lethal type and certainly not suited for target shooting. Why on earth would the SSA need it? For that matter, why does SSA need a police force, much less highly trained SWAT teams? Do they anticipate an armed revolt by elderly Social Security recipients upset with their latest cost of living increases? Do they fear an anti-government conspiracy launched over tepid coffee in the reading lounges of retirement communities across the country? Given Obama’s attitude toward the elderly (e.g. “Granny, take the pill”) they may have reason to fear.
Giving DHS agents a much larger quota of 5,000 rounds did seem extreme.
Again, though, many such purchases are based on a justifiable rationale — or at least justifiable for the size of the government we have. (Whether it should be that large in the first place is a very different question.)
An unfortunate consequence of massive government growth and expansion is the requirement for a law enforcement presence to oversee it all. One would not think the Social Security Administration or the Department of Agriculture, for example, would need a large law enforcement presence.
But welfare and food stamp fraud is epidemic. Some gangsters engaged in these activities are as dangerous as drug traffickers – and are involved, often, in both. Determined welfare fraud rings connected to organized crime are ripping off billions of taxpayer dollars. One of the most dangerous federal law enforcement jobs is — believe it or not — ole’ Smokey Bear, the National Park Service rangers, since a great deal of criminal activity takes place within the peaceful aura of life in the woods. (Marijuana fields, for example, are guarded by trigger-happy, AK-47 toting goons.)
At the same time, fears of an omnipresent federal law enforcement infrastructure are justified. The growing federal police force contains the potential to evolve into a police state.
The increasing use of SWAT-type raids against established businesses like Gibson Guitar, Duncan Outdoors and Mountain Pure Water Co., and countless smaller raids against other non-threatening targets for essentially routine administrative matters reinforce the belief among many that such a police state is just around the corner, if not here already. Innocent people have been killed in some of these unwarranted raids.
It is not the amount of ammunition purchases posing the threat. Instead, it is the ominous growth of federal law enforcement under a president who abuses power and ignores the constitutional limits of his office.
The growing federal police force contains the potential to evolve into a police state.
Obama has done his best to induce panic among gun owners. This, more than anything else, has created the shortages – driven by an unprecedented increase in private market demand. At the height of the frenzy, the NRA provided a good analysis in its American Rifleman magazine. While ammunition manufacturers are loath to admit exact production numbers, the NRA found that between 2007 and 2012, excise taxes on ammunition purchases doubled.
Many other reports tell a similar story, but it is easy to understand with a simple example. There are over 80 million gun owners in the U.S. If every single one went out and bought just 100 rounds – barely enough for one afternoon on the range – it would require 8 billion rounds of ammo. But many gun owners have been stockpiling, and retailers seek to purchase large quantities to capitalize on higher demand and prices. The shooting sports, meanwhile, have enjoyed a revival, even on college campuses.
Despite the unprecedented explosion in demand, the shortage is now largely past. After producing round the clock for years, ammunition manufacturers are now able to fulfill orders for most of the popular calibers, albeit at higher prices. Even the popular .22, long unavailable after supplies of other ammo reappeared, is finally coming back on the shelves.
While the ammo shortage was not caused by excessive government purchases, Obama can nonetheless take credit for creating justifiable panic among private citizens that prompted an unprecedented ammo buying spree that cleared retailer shelves for years. It would not be at all surprising to see another uptick in demand if Obama makes good on his threat to push more gun control.
James Simpson is an economist, former White House budget analyst, businessman and investigative journalist.