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WKYT Investigates | Ammo shortages

Low supply and high demand have forced many gun owners and sportsmen to adapt.
Published: Jan. 4, 2021 at 4:00 PM EST
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LEXINGTON, Ky. (WKYT) - It has been a busy year for gun stores. Firearms have flown off the shelves. Ammunition has been in short supply and high demand.

“It was a problem for people to find a round of .270 to take their child hunting with,” Edwin Nighbert, president of the League of Kentucky Sportsmen, said of the state’s modern gun hunting season this fall.

And even if supply picks up in response to the scarcity, experts say the trend still could continue amid global uncertainty, political changes across the country, and further potential pandemic-related disruptions.

Because as supply has dwindled, demand has jumped.

In 2020, gun retailers reported a 95 percent increase in firearm sales and a 139 percent increase in ammo sales compared to the same period in 2019, according to survey results published in August by the National Shooting Sports Foundation, or NSSF, a firearm industry trade association.

For one thing, 2020 provided a near-perfect opportunity to spend a lot of time outdoors.

“We’ve fished and hunted galore with my family,” Nighbert told WKYT’s Garrett Wymer. “There’s no better place to socially distance and, in my opinion, get right with the Lord.”

But whether hunters and other sportsmen and sportswomen are out in the woods or loading up at the range for some target practice, it has not been easy for them to find ammunition.

The problem has been years in the making, with a number of different triggers and factors. This year, Nighbert chalks it up largely to panic buying, politics and the pandemic.

“2020 has heightened a lot of awareness for people,” said LaTreese Carter, a firearms instructor in Lexington. “And they feel like they need to be safe, they need a weapon, or they need at least to know how to use one properly.”

Carter teaches concealed carry and gun safety classes. She says it has been a busy year for her, and she has been training a lot of people - including many first-time gun owners and women.

“It’s quite amazing - especially during COVID - that it’s picked up the way it has,” Carter said.

By all indications it has been a big year for gun sales, too.

The FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Checks (NICS) system - used when someone tries to buy a gun - has seen a record number of background checks in 2020, federal data shows. In total, more than 35 million NICS checks were completed through the end of November - the highest ever annual total since the program began in 1998. (More than 28 million NICS checks were completed in all of 2019.)

The number of background checks does not translate to the exact number of guns sold (due to different state laws and purchase scenarios, among other things) but experts say it does help paint a picture of market conditions. Anecdotally, gun shop owners have also reported higher-than-normal sales this year.

With ammo still hard to find on the shelves, several gun owners WKYT Investigates spoke to said they have been forced to change their habits and be more careful with which ammo - and how much of it - they use.

For Carter, the firearms instructor, that means less range time and even training on a different weapon, depending on which ammunition she is able to find.

“You have to be a lot more conscious on your shooting,” Carter said, laughing. “You only have so many.”

Nighbert says his supply has been in fine shape, but he has been careful not to waste any of it.

“I personally have always, whenever I had the extra few dollars, if I needed a box of .270, I bought them,” he said. “So it hasn’t affected me personally as much, but I’m also a lot more hesitant to go out and let the kids shoot in the backyard. Just because if something were to happen, I’d rather have that feed my family with than just blinking around the backyard.”

The good news for them: Nighbert says that the way big retailers work, he expects the ammo supply on the shelves should increase as manufacturers ramp up production to fulfill those companies’ orders. But some analysts and industry insiders expect the shortage to last well into 2021, or even beyond.

“It all happens in Washington, D.C.,” Nighbert said of what could continue to fuel panic buying, “and what they’re going to do as far as taxation, not taxation.”

With demand expected to remain high - regardless of what happens on the supply side - experts say it could continue to change what happens at ranges and in the woods as interest in shooting sports and other similar activities continues to grow.

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