The Biden administration recently prohibited the import of ammunition from Russia. That’s bad news for American firearms owners, but there may be much worse to come.
The gun prohibition lobbies, having mostly failed in their campaigns to convince legislatures to ban guns, have intensified their efforts to disarm Americans by other means. The Biden ammunition ban is one step in the process.
If you’ve tried to buy ammunition in the last year and a half, you know how bad the shortage already was, even before the new ban. In a sense, Joe Biden has been a contributor to the shortage since 2020.
Gun and Ammunition Sales Were Already Surging
When presidential nominees declare an aggressive anti-liberty agenda, many Americans prudently exercise their rights while they still can. If an anti-rights candidate wins and starts implementing a gun-control agenda, the urgency increases. Thus, arms and ammunition purchases surged in 1993-94 (early Bill Clinton), 2008-09 (early Barack Obama), 2012-13 (Obama making gun control a top second-term priority), 2016 (Hillary Clinton campaign), and 2020 (Biden campaign).
Biden was, however, not the only problem. Rising COVID-19 cases worried many Americans that police forces might be temporarily spread thin. Thus, March 2020 saw a huge (and still enduring) surge in ammunition buying, beginning to outstrip supply.
Then came the summer of violence, as Marxists, leftists, and other opportunistic malefactors robbed, burned, looted, and murdered with impunity. Many law enforcement agencies stood idle. While rioting has abated in most cities, it will resume whenever the organizers decide to turn it on again. Meanwhile, the police have been partially defunded in some cities, and vilified and demoralized everywhere.
Given that so many governments have demonstrated that they cannot or will not protect citizens from individual criminals or from violent mobs, it is no wonder that so many Americans have decided to take responsibility for protecting themselves and their families. But they can’t do that if they can’t buy ammunition.
A Maxed-Out Market
In 2020 about 8.4 million guns were purchased by first-time gun buyers. Like Americans who already owned guns, these newcomers might, in ordinary times, buy a few boxes at a time, for target and safety practice. But in today’s extraordinary times, many new and old gun owners are seeking to buy more, since they do not know if they will be able to buy ammunition at all in the future. Politicians from coast to coast used the pandemic as a pretext to shut down gun stores. No one can predict when they will do so again.
America’s ammunition manufacturers have responded to the full limits of their capacity. Many factories are operating 24 hours a day. But because the continuing effects of COVID-19 have disrupted supply chains, there are many materials bottlenecks that limit manufacturing output.
Input prices have also soared. For example, a pound of copper cost $2.55 on Sept. 2, 2019, and $4.30 on Sept. 2, 2021. Ammunition prices in many calibers have at least doubled. The backorders at ammunition manufacturers now stretch out to a year or more. Hornady Manufacturing Company — known for very well-engineered self-defense and hunting ammunition — said in May 2021 that it already had orders for its next two and a half years of production.
The ongoing ammunition shortage is seriously impairing the exercise of Second Amendment rights. Many gun owners have cut back on practice because they cannot be sure they will be able to replace the ammunition they use. Some firing ranges are not even able to sell customers a box of ammunition. The shortage is particularly burdensome for the millions of Americans who purchased their first firearm in 2020 and are being deprived of practice opportunities.
Drying Up Imports
On August 20, 2021, the Biden administration announced it would not issue new licenses for the import of ammunition from Russia. Existing licenses were not affected. Ostensibly, the import bans are sanctions against the Russian government for its attempted murder of dissident Aleksey Navalny (although the seriousness of the Biden administration’s sanctions policy is questionable).
In 2020, 765 million units of Russian ammunition were imported into the United States — more than from any other nation. The calibers most affected by the Biden import ban are 7.62×54, 7.62×39, 5.45×39, 5.56×45, and match-grade .22 rimfire. Those first four calibers are mainly for AK platform semi-automatic rifles. AK rifles are manufactured by U.S. companies and by overseas exporters. Functionally, these popular rifles (and sometimes large pistols) are alternatives to the even more popular AR platform.
In general, AK rifles are manufactured to looser tolerances than ARs. This makes them less accurate, especially at longer distances. But they are also amazingly durable, and function well even under conditions of hard use, such as exposure to dirt.
Jim Grant, an editor of the AmmoLand website, urges Americans not to worry: other foreign countries export the above calibers to the United States, and by the time the existing Russian import licenses expire, some of the Russian manufacturers may be able to shift production to other nations.
Biden’s Ban Isn’t the Only Threat
Although the ammunition shortage may ease up in a year or two, the gun prohibition lobbies have more restrictions on their agenda. Michael Bloomberg’s “Everytown” lobby wants America to adopt the British system, in which guns and ammunition must be stored in separate, locked safes.
“We are all safer” in such a system, the Bloomberg lobby claims. True enough, if “we” means “violent home invaders.” But having to open two safes in a few seconds when invaders have crashed through your home’s back door makes life perilous for your family.
Perhaps the biggest current threat is a recent California law misleadingly billed as “background checks for ammunition.” As the history of gun control shows, what happens in California doesn’t stay in California. California prohibits mail-order sales. So rural Californians might have to drive hours to find a retail store with the ammunition they need.
If you can find a store with the necessary ammunition, the California statute requires the ammunition buyer affirmatively to prove American citizenship. Don’t have a handy certified copy of your birth certificate? California will take up to 22 weeks to issue you one. If you can’t get a certified birth certificate (or a passport, which usually requires a birth certificate to obtain), then you can never buy ammunition in California.
If you do have a certified birth certificate, the ammunition background check can begin. It is very different from the background check for firearms purchases.
Don’t Californicate the Gun Market
For the typical firearms background check, the buyer’s identity is checked against lists of prohibited persons (e.g., persons with felony convictions, unlawful aliens who were apprehended, persons under domestic restraining orders). In contrast, the ammunition check blocks sales to everyone who is not on the California registry of gun owners.
California’s handgun registry was created in 1990, and the long gun registry in 2014. If you bought your firearm before that, you won’t be on the list, and your ammunition purchase will be denied. You will also be denied if your current address is different from where you lived when you bought your gun.
As a result, 99.8 percent of California ammunition purchase denials are erroneous. The California appeal system for wrongful denials is opaque and slow. The apparent net effect of California’s “background checks for ammunition” has been to deter or prevent at least 2 million law-abiding Californians from purchasing ammunition.
As California illustrates, the gun prohibition lobbies are more sophisticated than ever, and they have discovered that even if they can’t ban guns outright, choking off ammunition is an effective way to prevent people from using guns.
David Kopel is Research Director at the Independence Institute, in Denver. Among his recent books is “The Morality of Self-Defense and Military Action: The Judeo-Christian Perspective.”