Demand Surge And Supply Contraction Leads To Shortage Of Ammunition, Worrying Law Enforcement

September 22, 2021

By a Biometrica staffer

Law enforcement officers, manufacturers, and sports shooters across the country are expressing worries over recent record gun sales leading to an ammunition shortage, with many saying that such a state of affairs could drag on for at least another year or year and a half.

In Baltimore County, the dearth in supplies is leading some police agencies to turn to shooting range stocks. A local tactical police unit there said it had placed extra orders for some key ammunition in 2020, but had not received it due to a nationwide shortage. As a result, in July, the unit had “critically low” supplies.

Last month, gun shop owners in Iowa similarly reported a shortage of ammunition, mostly due to a narrowing of manufacturing juxtaposed against increased demand. Similar trends have also been noted in South Dakota, Iowa, and North Dakota.

Meanwhile, in Minnesota, it is recreational hunters who are complaining due to a rifle and shotgun ammunition shortage, with it impacting their sporting behavior ahead of hunting season, as well as competitive target shooting practice. According to the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), over 50 million Americans participate in shooting sports.

There has been a noted uptick in the number of gun sales over the last two years. Part of the reason behind these circumstances is a constriction in both manufacturing and in the supply chain due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Also at cause is the fear-driven purchase of firearms by the general public. This latter factor has been motivated, according to some, by the protests in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder and associated discussions of police reform.

At the same time, just as with toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and other necessities at the start of the pandemic, people were rushing to panic-buy firearms amidst ongoing discussions over tightening gun control policies. The dual-edged mismatch in supply and demand has, of course, led to a rise in the prices of some types of ammunition.

In 2018, the Washington Post reported that there were more civilian-owned firearms in the United States than people, at 393 million and 326 million, respectively, at that time. The federal government does not, naturally, collect statistics on how many firearms were purchased by who, but one of the best estimators is the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) database.

As NICS has to be contacted every time an individual attempts to purchase a firearm, its data can be an approximator for the appetite for buying firearms, though it is not a direct reflection of the pure number of sales.

Per the latest NICS annual report, in 2019, NICS processed almost 28.5 million background check requests, of which it denied 103,592 transactions. As of the end of August 2021, there were over 24.5 million records in total in the NICS incidences — a number that changes as per gun purchase regulations across the country. As of August 2021, NICS has run a whopping 400 million firearms background checks.

In addition, NICS ran over 2.7 million background checks in August 2021 alone, bringing the year’s total thus far to roughly 27.8 million. For context, 2019’s year total was 28.3 million while 2020’s was nearly 40 million — the highest yearly total noted since NICS started keeping records in 1998. Over NICS’ entire existence, six of the top ten days with the highest number of background check requests were in 2021, and two were in 2020. All ten of the weeks with the highest volume of requests were either in 2020 or 2021.

Anecdotal evidence from licensed gun stores also suggests there has been a sudden influx in the number of first-time owners purchasing firearms, demographically representing all races, ages, and political beliefs. Some estimates suggest that as much as 40% of all buyers in 2020 were first-time gun owners.

One piece of survey research recently estimated that women have accounted for nearly 50% of all new gun purchases since the beginning of 2019. Nationally, roughly 56% of gun owners are white men, 16% are white women, 9.3% are Black men, and 5.4% are Black men, according to the NSSF.

Researchers say up to 20% of those who bought guns in 2020 were Hispanic and 20% were Black. One Black-owned gun store in California reported a particular uptick in the number of Black women buying guns, particularly in context of civil unrest and anti-police sentiment. Another factor driving sales among minority groups and women is a fear of violent crime, the rates of which have been rising over this year and last, per reports.

In the past, there has been a tendency, noted by some observers, for gun sales to spike in the aftermath of high-profile mass shootings, as the debate over gun control measures does the rounds once more. Similar trends were noted after the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. Last year, there was also a spike in gun sales after several large cities announced Covid-19 lockdown measures.