Numerous local media outlets are reporting on shortages of ammunition. That, paired with a recent Homeland Security procurement request, has given rumormonger extraordinaire Alex Jones a chance to kick up rumors that the government is hoarding ammo either to arm a secret army (as some have worried) or to prevent lawful gun owners from accessing it, as a United States Senator charged over the weekend.
That's not true. And the numbers make that clear.
The simple reason for the spike in ammunition sales is that people are buying more guns. We've repeatedly shared data on one of the best metrics of gun sales in the United States — background check requests performed by the FBI. At the end of last year, with the perfect paranoia storm of the reelection of Barack Obama and the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary, sales skyrocketed, setting a variety of single-day and weekly sales records.
The numbers have receded, but that massive increase in gun sales has meant a big increase in ammunition sales.
Over the weekend, the Houston Chronicle offered another useful metric. Each time certain weapons and ammunition are sold, the manufacturer pays an excise tax. Over the course of the past decade, the amount of excise taxes collected nationally have similarly increased, reaching a new peak in 2013 — a year that is four months old.
In a phone interview with The Atlantic Wire, a representative of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wasn't able to answer whether or not government purchases are subject to the tax. Since the tax is applied to manufacturers, it's likely that it does. Nonetheless, the pattern is the same: a big recent increase in the number of guns and ammunition being sold.
Update, May 8: In fact, the government is exempt from excise taxes, according to the Code of Federal Regulations, Section 27:
PART 53: MANUFACTURERS EXCISE TAXES-FIREARMS AND AMMUNITION
Subpart K: Exemptions, Registration, Etc.
53.131 - Tax-free sales; general rule.
(a) In general. Section 4221(a) of the Code sets forth the following exempt purposes for which an article subject to tax under chapter 32 of the Code may be sold tax-free by the manufacturer, producer, or importer: ...
(4) To a State or local government for the exclusive use of a State or local government
In an interview with WABC Radio, Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma presented the most rational version of the irrational argument that the government is trying to keep ammo out of the hands of regular Americans. The Daily Caller transcribes:
And so my feeling is that he’s doing this to buy up [ammunition] so that we can’t buy: Honest, law-abiding citizens here in the United States, like my son, can’t even buy ammunition because government is purchasing so much.
As Media Matters outlined earlier today, there's no evidence of this. Much of the case Inhofe makes stems from Jones' claim that the Department of Homeland Security wants to buy up 1.6 billion rounds of ammunition. In fact, that number is for an agreement to last five years, and represents the maximum that would be purchased. As DHS explained in November of last year, it's annual purchases of ammunition have declined for the past three years.
That letter was in response to the most recent claims that the government was hoarding ammunition, which bubbled up last August. Both the NRA and the National Shooting Sports Foundation refuted it at that time.
But a stronger rebuttal of Inhofe's case is that even the vast-sounding scale of the DHS' annual sales pales in comparison to the full scale of the ammunition market. Media Matters puts it at 0.11 percent of the national market. The comparison can be made more directly.
Last April, the Portland Press Herald wrote a profile of an ammunition manufacturer in Minnesota. That one manufacturer, Federal Cartridge, produced 480 million rounds in 2011. That's four times as much ammunition as all of Homeland Security used in 2011 — and that's just one manufacturer.
It's worth noting why the Press Herald was profiling Federal. Turns out that sales of ammunition were spiking in April 2012, because of non-military sales.