The great US ammunition famine of 2021

How the US ran out of bullets amid a coronavirus pandemic.

A sign in front of an empty bullet display case informs customers of purchase limits on gun ammunition at a Walmart store in Rochester, New York on May 3, 2021 [File: AP/Ted Shaffrey]

Some years ago, my estranged grandmother – a psychologically unstable resident of Florida and a devout believer in the right to bear arms – threatened my aunt, i.e. her own daughter, with a handgun.

The weapon was confiscated from my grandmother’s possession by authorities, only to be returned at a later date – such being life in a country that is, for all intents and purposes, mentally ill.

As the Washington Post reported back in 2018, there were already “more guns than people” in the United States, not even counting the gobs of guns belonging to trigger-happy law enforcement agencies or the military.

According to a study by the Geneva-based Small Arms Survey, the Post summarised, Americans comprised 4 percent of the world’s population in 2017 but “owned about 46 percent of the entire global stock” of civilian firearms. This meant that, in the US, there were enough civilian-owned firearms “for every man, woman and child to own one and still have 67 million guns left over”.

In 2019, the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a US government agency, tallied approximately 109 daily deaths by firearm-related injuries. Six out of 10 deaths were suicides.

Now, as the coronavirus pandemic and other phenomena have propelled Americans to arm themselves even more maniacally, it seems my grandmother was ahead of the trend.

A recent Guardian article on America’s present ammunition shortage – as manufacturers fail to keep up with an apparently insatiable demand for bullets – quotes manager Joe O’Healy at Good Guys Guns & Ammo in Nanuet, New York: “We see things we’ve never seen before, like single moms with strollers and grandmas buying shotguns”.

Per O’Healy’s calculations, ammunition sales at the shop have shot up by a factor of 10, and the general panorama has been “great for business” – as if there were any doubt that one of the points of capitalism is to make a killing off of, well, killing.

While 2020 saw a massive spike in gun purchases in the US – with millions of new gun owners joining the ranks of the self-militarised and triggering the start of a national ammunition famine – 2021 is on track to reach new peaks.

The New York Post observes that ammunition is “flying off of shelves across the country as anxious Americans – who purchased a record number of firearms during the pandemic – lock and load up in response to social unrest and an increase in violence”. For its part, Fox Business bemoans the ammunition shortage that constitutes a “plague” on the “industry” – which is cast as somehow more worrisome than the current literal plague or the fact that it is not normal for individuals to stockpile military-style assault rifles in response to, you know, a virus.

The Billings Gazette, the largest newspaper in the state of Montana, has opted for the headline “Shell shock: Ammo shortage bites industry, shooters”, followed by the opening sentence: “While last year’s toilet paper panic during the grip of the pandemic was disturbing, at least it was brief.”

More disturbing, perhaps, is the article’s mention that the internet is “smoldering” with rumours that certain folks in the US are “arming for the potential of a civil war”.

As for the industrial “biting” that is allegedly under way, it goes without saying that many in the industry are in reality making bank off the whole arrangement, to the tune of billions of dollars – including on account of substantial price hikes occasioned by the shortage.

Of course, the mad dash to arms is unsurprising in a cutthroat neoliberal state predicated on violence and insecurity at home and abroad – a place where corporate tyranny is marketed as freedom and citizens are indoctrinated to think that deadly weapons provide more personal security than, say, free healthcare or housing.

Beyond factors like pandemic panic, social unrest and rising crime, and preparations for an impending civil war, other commonly cited reasons for weapons and ammunition hoarding by Americans range from “fear of the unknown” (South Dakota’s Capital Journal newspaper) to “meat shortages” (CNBC) to “people having more time for hunting” (the Guardian).

There is also a misguided perception among hoard-prone sectors that the newly inaugurated Biden administration will soon crack down on guns – as though US Democrats have, at the end of the day, ever exhibited any less enthusiasm for the bipartisan militarised sociopathy that characterises America.

Meanwhile, a July Forbes magazine dispatch about how top US ammunition manufacturer Vista Outdoor is “launching ammo subscriptions” to combat bullet scarcity (all as “quarterly sales and profit” are driven to “new heights”) attributes unprecedented sales in part to “protests over police brutality against Black Americans”.

Speaking of police brutality, the Associated Press notes that the ammo shortage is affecting US law enforcement agencies, as well – albeit not the US military, which unfortunately manufactures its own ammunition.

Executive director of the National Law Enforcement Firearms Instructors Association Jason Wuestenberg is quoted as affirming that “we have had a number of firearms instructors cancel their registration to our courses because their agency was short on ammo or they were unable to find ammo to purchase”.

Anyway, a slight decrease in ammunition presumably will not wean US law enforcement personnel off their penchant for shooting Black Americans – although perceived unpreparedness on the part of police will undoubtedly further fuel over-compensatory arms acquisition by white supremacists.

The Associated Press goes on to specify that, despite the ammunition famine, some US-made ammo is managing to make its way out of the country to select destinations like Israel – another location where the lucrative proliferation of insecurity transpires under the guise of security.

During a May 24 White House press briefing, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki was alerted by one inquiring reporter to the fact that, in the US “this past weekend, there were more than a dozen mass shootings”, while 4,000 more people had been “shot and killed by guns in 2020 compared to the year before”.

Psaki responded that “certainly there is a guns problem, and that’s something the President would say”.

But there is no real end in sight to the “problem”, no matter what the President says – particularly when US ammunition manufacturers have order backlogs in the multiple billions of dollars that are estimated to require a minimum of several years to fulfil.

And as the US continues to serve as a laboratory for lethal dystopian fantasy, I consider my aunt immensely fortunate.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.