With bare showcases and low inventory, Bob Pennepacker talks to a customer about when Gary's ACE Hardware anticipates getting ammunition back in stock.

National ammo shortage affects local gun shops

These days Bob Pennepacker spends a lot of time browsing the internet for 9-mm handgun ammunition. On the rare occasion he is able to find it, he runs — literally — twenty yards from his computer in the sporting goods department of Gary’s ACE Hardware to the store office to get the company credit card. 

“A lot of times if you find 9-mm, if you don’t buy it right then, in five minutes it’s all gone,” Pennepacker explains.

As the manager of the sporting goods department at Gary’s ACE in Culpeper, Pennepacker is responsible for keeping ammunition stocked. But since the start of the pandemic in March, it has been nearly impossible to keep up with demand. 

In Virginia, firearm sales are up 113 percent this year compared with 2019, according to the Virginia Firearms Transaction Center.

“There’s a lot of stockpiling going on,” Pennepacker said. “Until people see ammo on the shelf on a regular basis and they don’t feel like they have to buy it right away even if they don’t need it, they’re going to keep hoarding.” 

Some retailers, like Trading Post Guns outside Washington, have started to limit the amount of ammunition a customer can buy at a time to try to maintain their inventories. But one thing is certain: the current nationwide shortage of ammunition and firearms is the worst many gunsellers have ever seen.

In the words of GLOCK Communications Manager Brandie Collins, “GLOCK has not seen this level of need before since COVID is not something that has happened.” 

‘Buying it to have it’

In late March, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) included all firearm industry businesses on its list of essential services during the pandemic, but demand for firearms and ammunition has skyrocketed beyond the industry’s ability to produce. 

So what’s driving the run on guns? Pennepacker said that in March, common hunting cartridges were the first to fly off the shelves, presumably because people may have been anticipating a food shortage. 

But then, soon after the protests broke out in response to the killing of George Floyd, there was a wave of panic that caused people to rush out and buy firearms for self-defense. Handguns, AR15s, and the most common defensive ammunition rounds vanished from the store — and they have been hard to get back in stock. 

“I just had a regular customer … [who] wanted to buy a full case of double-aught buckshot. There are 25 rounds in a box. A case is like 10 boxes. When would you ever need that much buckshot? He was just buying it just to have it, waiting for the next riot to break out,” said Gary Walker, owner of the Culpeper ACE store.

 “It’s like milk and bread when there’s a hurricane or a snowstorm coming. You buy five gallons of milk and four of them will go bad before you can drink them,” Walker said.

12.1 million background checks

According to Mark Oliva, Director of Public Affairs at the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), more than 12.1 million background checks for new firearm sales have been conducted nationally since the beginning of the year. NSSF data show that 40 percent of people purchasing firearms are first-timers. “And of those first-time buyers, 58 percent are African American and 40 percent are women,” Oliva said in an interview with the Rappahannock News. 

Locally, Pennepacker says he, too, has seen an increase in the number of women purchasing guns for self-defense. “I would say about 40 percent of them are women,” he said. 

Oliva said that the shortage has been caused predominantly by “a sustained surge in demand that has outstripped the ability for manufacturers to keep up with it. That’s 12.1 million people buying ammunition that weren’t buying it before.”

Though manufacturers have seen no shortage of metals, Oliva says primers (the chemicals that give bullets their combustible properties) have been more difficult for manufacturers to obtain. When asked if the coronavirus has slowed production, Oliva said manufacturers are “certainly impacted.” 

As for distributors, when Oliva recently toured a large distribution center in Louisiana, three-quarters of the shelves were empty. To keep up, distributors are dispatching what they call “boomerang” orders: as soon as new stock comes in from manufacturers, it goes right back out the door to retailers.

But because small businesses like Gary’s ACE Hardware are not ordering in the huge quantities that national retailers like Cabela’s and WalMart order, Pennepacker says it often takes longer for them to see merchandise arrive. 

The internet has also had an immeasurable impact on brick-and-mortar gun stores because internet sellers can buy directly from the manufacturers and sell directly to consumers, allowing them to offer competitive prices. And now, because internet sellers are the only ones with ammo, they are charging a premium. 

Six months ago, Pennepacker could buy a box of 9-mm ammunition for about $8 and retail it for $12.99. But the last time he bought it online, he had to pay $25 a box and sell it for $34.99. 

“Our regular distributor's pricing hasn’t gone up that much, but they don’t have it. So the only way you can get it is by going on the internet … when it’s going through the internet distributors, they’re pricing it and getting every dollar out of it that they can,” he said. 

‘A lot of calls’

Pennepacker continues to receive almost 100 firearm- or ammunition-related inquiries every day, an indication that the shortage won’t be ending anytime soon. 

When asked about what the ammunition shortage might mean for hunters this fall, Pennepacker sighed. “I’ve gotten a lot of calls about that,” he said. 

“The thing is, the manufacturers can make a lot more money selling and making all the 9-mm ammo they can make, and if they cut back on production of rifle rounds, they’re going to be even scarcer than they are now.”

He says he has placed an order for three times the amount of ammunition he has ordered in previous years. “Until [customers] see it on the shelf on a regular basis and they don’t feel like they have to buy it right away even if they don’t need it, they’re going to keep [stockpiling].” 

“Nothing’s going to change probably,” says store owner Gary Walker, “until after the election and when you stop seeing the rioting on TV.”

At the national level, Oliva predicts that the 2020 presidential election will serve as a bellwether for how long the shortage will last. If Trump wins, he says, the shortage may continue well into next year. But if Biden wins, Oliva says “it will pale in comparison.”

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