Police facing shortage

In January, Roaring Spring Police Chief Milton Fields placed a standard order for a 1,000-round case of .223-caliber ammunition, the bullet for the AR-15 assault rifle often used in law enforcement.

“They informed me that they were 10,000 cases on back order,” Fields said. “I still haven’t received mine.”

After years of shifting supply in the global ammunition market, a surge of demand spurred by mass shootings and gun-control fears has cleaned store shelves and forced police to wait months for bullets.

There’s no end in sight, police and distributors said this week, and some departments have begun stockpiling ammunition in time for state-mandated shooting tests.

“Everybody’s rushing out, buying guns and ammo because of possible gun bans,” Martinsburg Police Chief Kerry Hoover told council members at a Monday borough meeting.

Hoover said he placed a routine order in February with a state-approved ammunition supplier. Everything appeared to be moving smoothly until he received an email from the company, he said.

“They said, ‘If you need ammo for fall qualification, order it now,” Hoover said. The distributor said they could expect a six-to-eight month wait for pistol rounds, and as much as a year’s wait for shotgun and rifle ammunition.

The Municipal Police Officers’ Education and Training Commission, a state arm that sets local officers’ training standards, mandates shooting tests at least once each year; in practice, many departments test twice, with practice sessions in between.

Each office can expect to fire 60 handgun rounds during a typical qualification, Fields said, and as many as 90 rounds if he hopes to qualify with an assault rifle. If an officer fails, he must take the test again to carry a firearm.

The numbers – and expense – add up quickly, especially at large departments.

And police don’t get a fast-track for ammunition: Their supply is affected by the same delays and market forces that hit civilian consumers, said Lee Markl, president of Markl Supply Co., a Pittsburgh-based law enforcement supplier.

“The police are actually the smaller part of the market,” Markl said, noting that departments buy only about 5 percent of all handgun ammunition nationally. “It’s a major consideration for law enforcement agencies.”

Markl said the short supply has been a growing issue for years, as growing countries like China and India have upped demand for lead, brass, copper and aluminum, the raw materials that go into bullets.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan also have cut into the supply, Markl said, with the U.S. military emptying millions of cartridges each year. Meanwhile, restrictions on cheap imported ammunition has shrunk the pool available to hunters and casual range-shooters, he said.

But the final factor – and the one police said has most noticeably affected them – is the skyrocketing demand since the December school shooting that left 26 dead in Sandy Hook, Conn.

The shootings renewed the gun-control debate in Washington, D.C., and in state capitals throughout the country, provoking fear that the government could limit gun and ammunition sales.

“When everybody feels the government is going to restrict guns and ammunition, you have added impact. … The shelves just get cleaned off,” Markl said.

Back-ordered ammunition is so delayed, Altoona Police Department Lt. Jeff Pratt said Friday, that officers thought an order that arrived in January was sent by mistake: They’d ordered it nearly nine months earlier, he said, and forgot it was on the way.

“And the ammunition you can locate has nearly doubled in price, even tripled or quadrupled,” Pratt said. “I should have invested in ammunition futures instead of the stock market.”

It’s the first time in his life, Pratt said, that he has seen nearly every type of ammunition on delay.

While the situation isn’t yet serious enough to prevent local departments from meeting state qualifications, some acknowledged that it’s a possibility in coming months or years.

Pratt said he hopes police groups can press the state Legislature to lift some test requirements if the shortage becomes more severe.

“That’s absolutely a concern,” Fields said, noting that departments would have to request waivers from the state training commission. “It’s never happened as long as I’ve been here.”

Hoover said his department has sought to keep ahead of demand for the last several years, since an earlier gun-control scare led to a similar nationwide rush for ammunition.

“At that time, we started to buy a little extra each year,” Hoover said. “Now we’ve started stockpiling a little bit.”

Mirror Staff Writer Ryan Brown is at 946-7457.