Concern that the Obama administration could impose a new ban on some semiautomatic weapons is driving worried gun owners to stockpile ammunition and cartridge reloading components at such a rate that manufacturers can't meet demand.
Attorney General Eric Holder last month suggested that the Obama Administration favors reinstituting a U.S. ban on the sale of assault weapons. President Bill Clinton first signed such a ban into law in 1994, generally blocking some military-style guns with magazines that hold many cartridges. President George Bush had allowed the ban to expire.
"We have heard from all across the country that there is a tremendous shortage of ammunition," said Lawrence Keane, senior vice president of the National Shooting Sports Foundation. "We've heard this from the manufacturers, that their customers are calling them trying to get supplies for inventory, and that the manufacturers are going full-bore, pardon the pun."
The Newtown, Conn.-based foundation is a trade organization representing firearms and ammunition manufacturers as well as retail gun shops.
"Semiautomatic rifles are selling at an incredibly brisk pace," said Keane, adding that many manufacturers of semiautomatic rifles and pistols are already so backordered that this year's entire production is already spoken for.
He said the current ammunition shortage followed the increase in gun sales. While the current shortage includes cartridges for popular semiautomatic rifles and pistols that were covered by the Clinton-era weapons ban, it also extends to other common varieties including common revolver cartridges and .22 rimfire cartridges used for hunting or target shooting.
In Wyoming, the run on bullets and reloading components reached such a frenzy that Cheyenne retailer Frontier Arms recently began rationing sales, said Becky Holtz, co-owner of the shop. Holtz said she's also been selling semiautomatic rifles as fast as she can put them on the shelves.
"You know there's something wrong when I've got little old ladies coming in buying 5,000 rounds of .22 shells," Holtz said.
Jere Jordan is general manager Midsouth Shooters Supply in Clarksville, Tenn. — one of a handful of firms in the country that specializes in mail-order sales of ammunition and reloading components and equipment.
In common with similar supply houses, Midsouth has run out of most ammunition in the calibers commonly used in semiautomatic pistols and popular military rifles. It's also backordered on many other types of cartridges.
"After the election, where you have a change of parties to a more liberal side, I would say I guess the conservatives want to protect what they feel might be taken away from them, either through a tax, or an all-out ban," Jordan said.
Midsouth and other similar dealers say they're also sold out of most varieties of primers used by hobbyists to handload cartridges. Primers are the explosive caps that ignite gunpowder in rifle and pistol cartridges.
Jordan said his company is taking orders for bullets and primers, but isn't sure when they'll be filled.
"The wait? We're not even guessing on the wait anymore," Jordan said. "It's exceeding 60 days."
Keane, of the Shooting Sports Foundation, said there are no national statistics that directly track firearms sales. However, he noted that there's been a sharp rise in the number of instant background checks that the FBI performs each time a person buys a gun at a gun store. Such checks are not required for personal sales, or for gun purchases at gun shows.
The FBI performed more than 4.2 million firearms background checks from November 2008 through this January, according to agency figures. That's an increase of more than 31 percent above the 3.2 million checks the agency performed from November 2007 through January 2008.
Keane said concerns other than the prospect of new federal regulations are also driving gun and ammunition sales. Those include the faltering economy and the potential side-effect of an increase in crime, he said.
"There's a concern about what's happening to the stock market, what's happening with unemployment, what's happening with the tremendous increase in government spending, whether there will be hyperinflation," Keane said.