Nationwide fears about public safety are driving gun and ammunition sales, creating longer waits for Baltimore County Police and other Baltimore-area law enforcement agencies trying to stock up on bullets and cartridges.
Facing “critically low” supplies, Baltimore County’s tactical unit — a group trained for special operations — nearly depleted its .223-caliber rifle cartridges at the end of July after the department’s ammo vendor, New Jersey-based The Gun Shop, couldn’t get them from the manufacturer it uses.
“There’s a nationwide shortage,” said county police Col. Steven Hlavach, chief of the department’s professional standards bureau.
“A lot of that has to do with the pandemic and some of the other things going on,” he said.
Baltimore County Police have unfilled ammo orders that date to last year, according to the county auditor. The county placed extra orders in 2020 to attempt to address the shortage, according to police spokeswoman Joy Stewart.
The department’s gun range was “also low on inventory” in July, according to the county auditor’s briefing to the County Council, and could not share inventory with other units.
The Harford Sheriff’s Office and Howard, Anne Arundel and Baltimore City police departments say they’ve seen similar strains with supply delays. None reported running out or rationing, but several have had to make changes in how they get bullets and cartridges.
Most contract with The Gun Shop, which sources much of its ammo from Minnesota-based manufacturer Federal Premium Ammunition.
With delays increasing, Baltimore County switched to a shooting range for supplies. The County Council in August approved paying $45,000 to GUNTRY in Owings Mills for 75,000 .223 cartridges.
County police previously issued a request for bids to provide ammunition, but did not receive any.
Driving the shortage is “a ton of fear,” said Warren Eller, associate professor in the Department of Public Management at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.
Also, “COVID has pretty dramatically affected supply chains,” Eller said. Supply chain disruption is one of the primary reasons for the shortage, he said.
As the coronavirus pandemic spread across the country in early 2020, subsequent lockdown orders and fears about what was coming next led to panic buying that Eller likened to the rush for toilet paper and other necessities at the pandemic’s outset.
Protests across the country about police use of force after a white Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd, a Black man, also fueled Americans to buy guns for protection, Eller said.
“We’re talking about defunding police officers during a time of civil unrest,” Eller said. “People are worried about personal protection, coupled with the typical, ‘We just elected an anti-gun Democrat.’”
The FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System database shows the uptick in sales: Last year, there were 39.7 million background checks for prospective gun buyers. In 2010, by comparison, there were 14.4 million such background checks.
As of June, 22.2 million checks have been conducted this year.
The number of guns sold could be higher, since multiple firearms can be linked to a single background check.
Meanwhile, gun safety advocates are increasingly calling for the regulation of ammunition sales to bolster laws controlling gun transactions, Eller said. For instance, President Joe Biden has pledged to end online ammunition sales.
The result has been sales that exceed the amount of ammunition that can be shipped. No FBI data is available on ammunition transactions because sales are not regulated and no license is required to sell it.
Spokespeople for The Gun Shop and Federal Premium Ammunition could not be reached for comment.
On its website, Federal Premium said it is rationing some stock, such as .223 and 9 mm ammo. Several types of ammunition that The Gun Shop normally buys from Federal Premium to fulfill its Baltimore County contract are listed on the manufacturer’s website as out of stock, or there’s a per-order cap of 10 boxes.
A recording that customers hear when they call Federal Premium advises that high demand is delaying orders by around 20 days.
In a video posted on YouTube by Minnesota-based Vista Outdoor, which owns Federal Premium and other ammunition brands such as Remington and Speer, Vice President Jason Vanderbrink tells customers that the companies are shipping ammo as fast as they can make it.
“I’m tired of reading the misinformation out on the internet right now about us not trying to service the demand that we’re experiencing,” he said.
If there were 7 million new gun owners between March 2020 and December 2020, and each owner bought just two boxes of ammunition, that’s 700 million “new rounds of ammo our three factories have to help produce,” Vanderbrink said.
“That is impossible to do in nine months,” he said.
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The result is not only scarcer supplies, but also rising prices. The cost of popular rounds like 9 mm ammo, for instance, is up 75% from just two years ago, said Eller, the John Jay College professor.
Lt. Brent Weaver, commander of the firearms unit of Anne Arundel County Police’s training academy, said the department doubled its ammo orders to prepare for the longer wait times. That’s shielded the department from the national shortage, he said.
“It’s like a grocery store; they try not to run out of milk,” Weaver said. Police department equipment managers “know what we’re looking at and what we’re looking to factor in, [like] any production delay.”
The bulk of police ammunition generally goes to patrol officers, who have to qualify annually for certain firearms certifications. A shortage could hamper their ability to train.
The Baltimore County department is not rationing ammo, Hlavach said, and police will still be able to meet state-required training requirements.
“Every officer that goes out on the street is fully equipped with the amount of ammo required for them to do their job,” he added.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.