Black Friday is long gone, but retailers that sell hunting and shooting supplies are seeing the return of early morning shoppers lined up, waiting for the doors to open.
Ammunition for some of the most popular rifles and handguns, including 9 mm, .38-caliber and .22-caliber bullets and others used for target shooting or self-defense, has been in short supply for months. The ammo shortage has inflated prices, induced retailers to ration supplies and, gun owners say, taken the “fun” out of target shooting.
That hasn't stopped customers from lining up almost daily in hopes the shelves have been restocked.
On a recent morning, Travis Hayes of Omaha arrived at the Cabela's store in La Vista a little after 9 a.m. and was able to snag several boxes of ammunition. “It's getting more expensive to shoot,” he complained. “I target shoot ... and prices have gone up 25 to 50 percent.”
By 9:30 a.m., the shelves were empty and clerks were advising customers to check back in a day or two.
Two days later, more than 40 people did check back. “It's to the point now where you can't even go out and enjoy yourself,” said one of the men and women standing in line. “It's not fun anymore.”
This time when Cabela's opened, a clerk stuck his head out the door to say there was no new ammo in stock.
Cabela's did not return phone calls or emails about ammunition shortages at its stores and out-of-stock notices on its website. But in a call with analysts Thursday, CEO Tommy Millner said strong sales of guns and ammunition helped drive Cabela's profits up 73 percent in the first quarter. The demand was making it tough to keep guns and ammunition on store shelves, he said, and he sees no end in sight.
The cause of the shortage is a matter of dispute.
Many gun owners say the scarcity has been caused, in whole or in part, by the federal government, citing reports that the Homeland Security Department bought 1.6 billion rounds of ammunition this winter, depleting stocks.
Homeland Security, which oversees Customs and Border Protection, the U.S. Coast Guard and other domestic security agencies, has told various media that it expects to purchase up to 1.6 billion rounds over the next four or five years, and its purchase is intended to secure a lower price.
But not everyone is satisfied by the agency's explanation, with some theorizing that the government is putting gun control in place by buying up all the ammo.
On Friday, U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., and U.S. Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Okla., introduced bills to limit government ammunition stockpiles to the average that each agency maintained from 2001-09.
At the other end of the spectrum, gun-control lobbyists say the issue is driven by profits. Josh Sugarmann, executive director of the Violence Policy Center, said the gun lobby and the gun industry have spun gun owners “into a tizzy,” creating a boon for gun and ammunition manufacturers.
Kimberly Amadeo, an author who writes about the economy, said she thinks the recent debate over gun control laws has set off a round of panic buying.
“It's fear-based buying. The gun buyers are doing it to themselves by buying up all the ammo and hoarding it,” Amadeo said. “I wouldn't be surprised if some people have a stockpile of two to three years' worth of ammo.”
She described the current situation as a bubble. With demand high, the money is flowing in, she said.
“I've spoke with one store owner who said 'I've sold more in the last month than in the last year,'” said Amadeo. “You can tell because prices have risen 25 to 50 percent instead of gradually.”
As a result, she said, manufacturers, in particular, are being conservative when it comes to purchasing materials. “They don't want to get stuck with a lot of steel if this is a bubble.”
Adding to the shortage is the growing number of people who are enrolling in gun safety and concealed weapons permit classes. Area shooting instructors and ranges say their numbers have risen dramatically in the last few months.
An employee of the Bullet Hole in La Vista said the shooting range's classes are filled with “new shooters,” women in particular, “who don't want to be victims.”
Up until six months ago, the Bullet Hole sold “a pretty steady supply of out-the-door ammunition,” he said. Now it is limiting ammunition purchases to one box per customer if that person has paid to use the range.
Last year, the National Instant Criminal Background Check System processed 19.6 million background checks, up nearly 20 percent from the 16.5 million in 2011.
At Scheels in Omaha, Assistant Manager Matt Jochum said he receives daily inquiries from customers wanting to know if the ammo aisle has been restocked. Scheels, like other retailers including Cabela's and Walmart, has imposed limits on how much ammunition a customer can buy at one time.
At Scheels, “We do have ammunition coming in but it shows up randomly,” Jochum said. And when it does appear, “it's gone within minutes.”
On the other hand, larger-caliber ammunition, such as .308 or .270 — “what you would use to shoot a deer” — is not in short supply and easily obtainable, said Parry Siebenaler, a Wahoo resident who teaches a course in firearms safety.
When a store has a new shipment, word spreads quickly. Some people use Walmart's iPhone/iPad apps to track daily whether ammunition is in stock.
“My buddy called me up this morning and told me Walmart at 72nd and Dodge has 9 mm,” said a man named Josh, who declined to give his last name. The gun owner bought several boxes of ammunition, including a box of 9 mm bullets even though he doesn't own a gun that uses that particular caliber.
“A couple months ago I bought a .22 pistol and then couldn't get any ammunition for two months,” said the man, who goes in search of ammunition “every two or three weeks.”
Ammunition manufacturers say they are ramping up production but are unable to keep up with demand. Hornady in Grand Island said it is operating three shifts but experiencing delays in processing orders, production and shipment.
Hornady did not respond to specific questions but referred The World-Herald to a statement on its website that says: “The current political climate has caused extremely high demand on all shooting industry products, including ours.
“Empty retail shelves, long back orders and exaggerated price increases on online auction sites — all fueled by rumors and conjecture — have amplified concerns about the availability of ammunition and firearms-related items,” Hornady said.
The ammunition manufacturer also sought to squelch rumors that it had ceased production or was selling all of its stock to government agencies: “Less than 5 percent of our sales are to government entities,” Hornady's site says, adding: “Many popular items are produced 24 hours a day.”
Karen Berghauser, coordinator of the Omaha Chapter of Women in the Outdoors, said the shortage of ammunition and inflated prices have made it difficult for students who enroll in some firearms classes. The federation sponsored a “Ladies Only Two-Day Handgun Course” last weekend at the Izaak Walton Chapter in Lincoln. Participants were required to have a handgun of at least .380 caliber or larger and 300 rounds of ammunition.
“All the ladies did find their ammo, but it was quite a challenge,” Berghauser said. “People are buying whatever they can get and stockpiling it in case it ends up being banned. I don't understand the mindset.
“Hopefully this will clear up and get back to normal this fall.”
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