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Fears about COVID, surge in outdoor pursuits send gun, ammunition sales soaring in U.S.; ammunition has become the new toilet paper

Joe Taschler
 
| Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Fears about the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as images of violent unrest across the country — including at the U.S. Capitol — and a surge in hunting and outdoor pursuits have sent firearm and ammunition sales in America soaring.

Ammunition of just about every caliber is in short supply in many areas of the country.

From the ammunition used by more than a half-million Wisconsin deer hunters to rounds for semi-automatic handguns and revolvers, store shelves have largely been cleared out. 

The demand for ammo is being driven by sharp increases in firearms sales. During 2020, the FBI reported that there were nearly 40 million firearms-related background checks. That’s 11.3 million more than 2019, which was the previous all-time high.

The FBI says that the number does not represent a one-to-one gun sale ratio. It also includes background checks for such things as obtaining or renewing concealed carry permits as well as other firearms-related checks. 

The firearms industry’s trade association, the National Shooting Sports Foundation, estimates — based on surveys of its members — that 21 million background checks were done for firearms sales in 2020. The next closest year was 2016, during which the group estimates 15 million such checks were done.

Those numbers are imprecise because people can buy up to five firearms a day on a single background check. 

Whatever the numbers, guns are selling as fast as retailers can get them.

“I normally stock hundreds of pistols and some days I’m down to two handguns in 9 millimeter (caliber) in the (display) case,” said Sean Eaton, who owns Fletcher Arms, a gun shop and shooting range in Waukesha. 

“Everybody in the country is in the same boat,” Eaton said. “Every gun shop in the country is just like me. Everybody sold six months’ worth of inventory in a week or two when COVID hit, and people have been buying double since then.

“It’s impossible for anybody to catch up.”

Track COVID-19 in Wisconsin: See the latest data on cases and the vaccine rollout

More: What we know about Wisconsin’s COVID-19 vaccine plan, what groups will get it and when

Pandemic seems to be a driver

COVID-19 and fears surrounding the pandemic appear to be driving the trend, according to researchers.

“Stress related to the coronavirus pandemic and the uncertainty of what the future holds is motivating people to purchase firearms…,” according to a Rutgers University study published in December in the Journal of Psychiatric Research.

“Essential workers are serving on the front lines of the pandemic and many are already facing systemic inequities that leave them experiencing chronic stress. The pandemic may be making that worse and leaving them considering options such as firearms in hopes that they will grant a sense of safety,” the study’s lead author, Michael Anestis, said in a statement.  

Anestis is an associate professor at the Rutgers School of Public Health. 

Eaton says he has seen spikes in gun sales during the 13 years he and his wife, Megan, have owned the store. “Nothing compares to this,” he said. “Every day we get dozens of calls about ammo and questions about guns.”

The store has also seen an “incredible jump” in demand for its firearms safety and concealed carry classes, he said.

The store has had to hire six new employees since March.

A visit to Fletcher Arms over the lunch hour on a recent Tuesday saw a buzz of activity, with the feel of a busy grocery store deli counter. At least four employees were behind a counter assisting customers who were either purchasing or inquiring about firearms. Several customers had reservations for a session at the store’s indoor shooting range.

Ammunition has become the new toilet paper

Ammunition, it seems, is being hoarded the way toilet paper, bottled water and canned goods were at the beginning of the pandemic.

Meanwhile, the National Shooting Sports Foundation trade group estimates that since the pandemic began, 8.4 million people have become first-time gun owners. 

Fletcher Arms is seeing “tons of first-time buyers, new people coming in that never had a gun, never thought about owning a gun before,” Eaton said.”

According to the NSSF, gun buyers are increasingly coming from a widening demographic. “40% of 2020’s buyers were women and the biggest increase of any demographic category was among African Americans, who bought guns at a rate 58 percent greater than in 2019,” the group said in a statement.  

“I’m a 47-year-old white guy living in the suburbs of Washington, D.C.,” said Mark Oliva, director of public affairs for the NSSF. “Today’s gun buyer is looking a whole lot less like me, and more like the rest of America.”

The ammo shortage has to do, at least in part, with all those new gun owners, manufacturers say. 

If all the new gun owners bought just two boxes of ammunition each, “that translates to 850 million cartridges,” the NSSF said.

Those 850 million cartridges would be about 10% of all the ammunition consumed annually in the U.S., based on 2018 statistics from the shooting trade association. Ammunition makers say it is impossible to increase production that much in the nine months since demand began to soar. 

‘Tired of all the hate mail’

The situation is so dire that ammunition manufacturers have taken to social media to  debunk rumors and conspiracy theories, including that the government is secretly paying companies not to manufacture ammunition and that manufacturers have deliberately cut production to raise prices and increase their profits.

In a video posted on YouTube Dec. 18, Jason Vanderbrink, president of Federal, Speer, CCI and Remington ammunition, addressed the situation. 

“I’m tired of all the hate mail. … I’m tired of reading the misinformation out on the internet right now about us not trying to service the demand we are experiencing,” Vanderbrink said. 

“It gets really old when I hear and read constantly that our ammunition companies are not making ammunition or have it (stored) in secret warehouses…,”  Vanderbrink said.

“We are indeed making ammunition. We are indeed shipping ammunition. We are not storing it in secret warehouses. I wanted to address those rumors because every day I hear something new and it’s simply not true.”

The video has been viewed 2 million times and has generated more than 13,000 comments, Vanderbrink said in a follow-up video posted Thursday.

The ammunition brands Vanderbrink represents are a unit of Ankona, Minnesota.-based Vista Outdoor, a manufacturer of shooting and outdoor recreation products.

In January of last year, Vista shares were trading around $7.40. On Tuesday,  the shares closed at $28.24.

Where is the hunting ammo?

The pandemic has driven people to outdoor pursuits where social distancing is easy.

That has led to a surge in hunting license sales in Wisconsin. The state Department of Natural Resources reported 569,203 people purchased gun deer hunting licenses for 2020, an increase of 3,337 from 2019. Licenses for all types of deer hunting in 2020 were up 3.5% to more than 820,000 licenses, according to the DNR.

“Female hunters remain the largest growing demographic in 2020, with the number of female hunters reaching nearly 92,312, up 12% from last year,” according to a DNR statement. 

For spring turkey hunting licenses, the DNR says it received 16,000 more license applications than it does in a typical year. 

It’s not just Wisconsin.  

“We saw a surge in hunter numbers brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Forrest Hammond, the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department’s bear biologist, in a statement, announcing that hunters in the state harvested a record number of bears in 2020.

Nationwide, purchases of hunting licenses as well as all other hunting permits, tags and stamps totaled just under 39 million in 2020, an increase of nearly 3 million vs. 2019, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

All those hunters need ammunition.

“Lots of people are saying, ‘Are you making hunting ammo? I can’t find any hunting ammo this year,'” Vanderbrink said. “We’re making more hunting ammo than we ever have in the history of our company.”

The tight supplies are impacting just about every caliber imaginable.

“We’re making a lot of ammunition right now. We’re making as much as we can as fast as we can,” Vanderbrink said.

It’s not enough.

“We restrict ammo (sales) to just range users and people buying guns,” Eaton said. “Otherwise we’d be out.”

Other stores are reporting much the same. 

“As is the case with many retailers, keeping firearms and ammunition in stock has been a challenge since spring, when the pandemic began,” according to an emailed statement from Appleton-based retailer Mills Fleet Farm.

A unit of global investment firm KKR, Mills Fleet Farm has stores throughout Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa as well as South Dakota and North Dakota.

‘We don’t have an extra factory laying around’

At least one other ammunition manufacturer has taken to social media to address the situation. 

“We understand that there is certainly an over-demand right now on ammunition availability,” Jason Hornady, vice president of Nebraska-based ammunition maker Hornady Manufacturing Co., said in a video posted Dec. 18 on YouTube. 

“The stuff that goes out today was literally put in a box yesterday. Unfortunately, we don’t have an extra factory laying around. … We are trying to add as much capacity as we can,” Hornady said.

“We understand it’s frustrating,” Hornady added. “It’s frustrating for us, too.”

New ammo plant coming to Wisconsin

The folks at AMMO Inc. say they expect ammunition demand to continue to be strong, so much so that they are planning to build a new manufacturing plant in Manitowoc. 

“We’re excited about expanding our facility to increase our ability to produce ammo and meet the demand that is out there,” said CEO Fred Wagenhals, chairman and chief executive of the Arizona-based company.

Chris Larson, the company’s vice president of finance, said company leaders believe the surging demand for ammunition will continue. 

“We do believe you will see continued high demand in the U.S. commercial market,” Larson said. “For the foreseeable future, there is a shortage of ammunition out there.

“All the new gun owners coming online, they need ammunition.”

Right now in Manitowoc, the company has its brass casings division, which makes the casings for AMMO’s ammunition as well as various other ammunition companies.

AMMO is planning to build a $12 million, 160,000-square-foot plant in Manitowoc that would create about 200 new jobs and open in summer 2022. 

With the expansion in Wisconsin, “We’ll be not only looking to increase our capacity on brass casing production, but we will start manufacturing loaded ammunition for the U.S. military and allied countries around the world, law enforcement (and) U.S. commercial markets,” Larson said.

Building an ammunition plant isn’t as simple as finding a piece of land, putting a building on it, filling it with machinery and beginning production.

The plants are highly regulated and every round that is produced must function flawlessly — and safely — when fired.

“That drives the whole process,” Larson said. “Our customers range from hunters to law enforcement to the military to allied forces around the world.”

For now, it is doing its best to run 24/7 with the facilities it has. 

“We just can’t find enough people,” Larson said. “We have machinery, but machinery doesn’t run itself. We need more engineers. We need more machinists. We need more of everything.”

“We are trying to run 24 hours, seven days a week, but we run into the issue of not having the people to operate the machinery for all those shifts,” he added. 

That’s one of the reasons the company chose Wisconsin for its new plant. 

“It seems pretty easy for us to find people who like the outdoors, like to hunt, like to shoot” in Wisconsin, Larson said.

AMMO shares (which trade under stock ticker POWW) were trading around $1.18 in January of last year. By Tuesday, the company’s stock price had more than quadrupled and was hovering near $6 a share. 

Others expect demand to continue strong. 

“We don’t know when it’s going to stop,” Eaton said. “People are buying every single day.”

Mike DeSisti of the Journal Sentinel staff and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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Contact Joe Taschler at (414) 224-2554 or jtaschler@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter at @JoeTaschler or Facebook at facebook.com/joe.taschler.1.

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