Ammo shortage affects Kansas police: costs rise, but cops have enough bullets for training

Jason Tidd
Topeka Capital-Journal
Richard Oakley, 81 from Carbondale, said he was worried about ammo shortage last year during the pandemic while browsing the bulk selection of bullets at The Gun Garage, 2120 N.E. Meriden Rd., Wednesday afternoon. "I feel a lot better now about availabilty," Oakley said.

As a nationwide ammunition shortage frustrates gun owners and retailers, Kansas law enforcement agencies say they have sufficient supply to train officers as prices go up.

"It’s just supply and demand at this point — everyone wants it, and we want it, too," said Lt. Benjamin Blick, the Sedgwick County Sheriff's Office spokesperson. "So the price has increased."

Deputy Abigail Christian, a spokesperson for the Shawnee County Sheriff's Office, said the agency has observed the price increases in the past year.

"Fortunately, we did forecast this increase in price due to short supply and were able to place bulk orders prior to the price increase," she said in an email. "Our ability to train and supply our deputies with appropriate ammunition has not been affected."

Retail sales have been hit especially hard, however. Finding ammo boxes on the shelf can be like a high-priced game of hide and seek.

Inflation has been anywhere from about 35% to 90% in the past year, depending on the ammo, said Floyd McMillin, co-owner of The Gun Garage in Topeka.

Customers at The Gun Garage, 2120 N.E. Meriden Rd., browse the wide selection of firearms and accessories Wednesday afternoon.

"I remember a year and a half ago selling Remington 9 mm for $9.99 a box," he said. "But now, the cheapest box of 9 mm you can find is probably $16."

The local business limited customers to a pound of ammunition per person per day, and "quite of few of them were frustrated with it," McMillin said. They recently lifted the 9 mm limit.

Hunting rounds like the 30-30 and .243 have had the biggest price increases due to shortages, which bodes poorly for hunting season.

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Part of the problem is supply hasn't been able to keep up with demand. Manufacturers are experiencing shortages of raw materials, such as lead and brass, McMillin said. Supply chain issues, especially in the import and export system, have also contributed. The federal excise tax further increases the price for consumers.

McMillin predicted some departments may have to start cutting back on the rounds fired at the range if the shortage continues.

Hunters and other gunowners who are having a hard time finding ammunition should not be concerned with potential impacts on public safety, said Darin Beck, executive director of the Kansas Law Enforcement Training Center in Hutchinson.

"I certainly can’t say that it wouldn’t be concerning to me if there was a shortage of ammunition that persisted," Beck said. "A short-term shortage of ammunition, though, is not something that the public should be concerned about in terms of training of law enforcement officers.

"I would also say, keep in mind that the fact that there is not ammunition on the shelves at a retail store does not mean that it’s not available to a governmental market, because those are governed by contracts that a retail outlet wouldn’t have access to."

Ammo shortage can mean increased costs

"Some of the bigger police stations buy ammo direct and they’re probably doing somewhat decent," McMillin said. "But we supply ammo to some of the small police departments. What we do is we hold back a percentage of each order that we get in, and we sell it to them so that they have ammo."

For example, a local hospital’s security force recently bought several thousand rounds of self-defense ammo from The Gun Garage. The rounds were to restock the force’s supply, which fired off its aging rounds during an annual qualifications shoot.

Ammunition shortages have eased somewhat at The Gun Garage, 2120 N.E. Meriden Rd., where customers can purchase from a wide range and even in bulk.

Topeka police have experienced no significant budgetary or operational impacts because of the nationwide ammo shortage, said Gretchen Spiker, a TPD spokesperson.

"The Topeka Police Department builds in annual percentage increases in recurring equipment purchases in most categories, as a best practice of financial management," Spiker said in an email. "No adjustments to our training practices have been made as a direct result of the reported national shortage."

Graham County Sheriff Cole Presley said he has not had any conversations with agency leaders who are affected by the ammunition shortage. Presley, who is president of the Kansas Sheriffs’ Association, said he would be "shocked" if some of the bigger counties were not experiencing issues.

"Visiting with local gun dealers, they have expressed frustration about not being able to get ammunition to sell," he said. "But as far as law enforcement goes, I have not heard that."

In the Wichita area, the Sedgwick County Sheriff's Office has noticed a financial cost of the ammo shortage. The agency is asking for an extra $33,000 in next year’s budget to cover the increased costs of ammunition.

Over the past five years, the sheriff’s office has gone through an average of about $34,000 worth of ammo a year in practice ammunition. That’s about 105,000 rounds a year of 9 mm, 51,000 rounds of .223 rifle ammunition and 5,000 rounds of 12-gauge shotgun ammunition.

The agency uses birdshot during training because it’s cheaper, but deputies carry buckshot when on patrol.

Pistol, rifle and shotgun ammunition carried on patrol is replaced every two years, which can cost $6,000 to $8,000.

The extra budget request from the sheriff’s office isn’t entirely due to inflation, Blick said. Larger recruit classes require additional ammunition, and the academy wants to increase the amount of firearms training. Still, the high cost has kept him from buying ammunition for personal use. 

"There hasn’t been any memos put out about not going and practicing, or not shooting so many rounds, because of the shortage," Blick said. "For those purposes, we haven’t noticed the shortage. I know that we have been affected by it, but I think it was more so because of the price."

If the extra funds aren’t approved, the agency would likely have to find money from other budget items, Blick said.

The orders are already in with the contractor, so the agency will still get the ammo it needs. The sheriff's office operates a training academy with the Wichita Police Department, and Blick said training has not been affected.

"Statutorily, we are required to pass proficiency every year when it comes to our firearms," he said. "So we continue to do that, and all of our training has pretty much remained the same. We’re not shooting any less rounds because of the shortage."

KLETC unaffected but has contingency plans

At the Kansas Law Enforcement Training Center, operations are continuing as normal.

"We haven’t felt the impact of it (the ammo shortage)," Beck said. "This is something that happened about four years ago as well where there was a nationwide shortage. At that point we implemented some process where we purchase our ammunition a year ahead of time so that we’re better able to respond to changes in the supply. 

"Because of that, we just haven’t been impacted yet. I don’t know yet if it’s going to impact us long-term, and frankly I don’t know whether there truly is a shortage in the government and contract sales market as opposed to the retail market."

Other agencies adopted the KLETC operations as a best practice after the prior shortage, Beck said. Anecdotally, he has heard that other agencies are buying early and in bulk. In the past, some agencies have loaned ammo to others to help get through shortages, particularly when there were delivery delays on supplies already ordered.

The training center has enough ammunition supplies to continue normal operations for a year. But if the shortage worsens, Beck knows what they would do.

"The last time that it happened, we did have contingency plans, to include less firearms trainings, but particularly less firearms trainings for those people who were already more familiar with firearms," Beck said. "Trying to essentially determine who really needed the most help versus who was just reinforcing skills they might already have. That was our plan at the time, and that would probably be our approach now."

For example, a police recruit who had been a soldier stationed at Fort Riley would likely not require as much firearms training. Their participation would shift to a focus on areas that would "truly hone their skills, primarily in a tactical situation."

Background checks indicate surging customer demand

McMillin said he first noticed the ammo shortage about a year ago. 

"What happened is there’s so many people in the world right now, even people that didn’t really believe in having guns, are buying guns to protect themselves," McMillin said. "Because they still believe that there should be a police department, and the police are cutting, everybody’s having a shortage of police officers, and to have somebody show up at your door when you need something ain’t happening."

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Federal background checks do not directly equate to gun sales, but they do serve as a nationwide indicator.

The FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System shows a surge in background checks coinciding with the coronavirus pandemic, protests following the murder of George Floyd and the election of President Joe Biden.

The number of background checks in March 2020, when the pandemic emergency was first declared, was up 41% from March 2019.

Summer months historically have fewer background checks, but amid civil rights protests and riots in June 2020, background checks surged 70% from the prior June.

In January, against the backdrop of the Capitol insurrection, an impeachment and an inauguration, background checks jumped 60% from January 2020.

The nearly 40 million background checks performed in 2020 was a 40% increase from 2019. The new year has shown few signs of a slow-down, with more than 25 million background checks so far equating to a 10% increase year-to-date.

The most background checks in a single month on record happened in March, when the Democrat-controlled U.S. House passed H.R. 8, a gun control measure that would expand background check requirements. The bill, which advocates say would close the "gun show loophole," has not received a vote in the divided Senate.

More:House passes bills to expand background checks for gun sales and close 'Charleston loophole'

However, background checks have decreased each of the last four months, and July had the fewest since the start of the pandemic, suggesting consumer demand may be starting to slow.

"I’m told from my dealers, it was here at the beginning of the year that they were two-to-four years out on catching up on their orders," McMillin said. "Right now we’re seeing a little bit of a catchup and we’re starting to see a little bit of ammunition in the system.

"But remember we’re going through the downtime of shooting. Right now is the slowest time for the gun industry, because summer vacations, kids out of school, everything else. Next month, it will start picking up."

His advice for gun owners looking for ammo: "If you find it, buy it."