A customer at the Oneida Walmart inspects a .223 rifle before purchasing it.
For clerks in the sporting goods department at the Oneida Walmart, it is a familiar question: “Do you have any .22lr ammo?”
One after another, gun owners looking to purchase ammo pass through the store. And, one after another, they are turned away empty-handed.
“When we do get a case of .22 ammo in, we sell out within a half-hour,” one cashier said.
As Congress takes up the debate of overhauling the nation’s gun laws, a rush on firearms and ammunition has frustrated suppliers and buyers alike. Manufacturers cannot keep up with demand; ammo shelves are mostly bare. In some stores, signs are posted to inform customers that their ammo purchases will be limited to a specific number of boxes per day.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Mark Hancock, owner of Buckhorn Hunting & Fishing Supply in Oneida. “It’s hard to keep up.”
Like most gun shop owners, Hancock has seen a significant uptick in customer traffic since the Dec. 14 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. That morning, a 20-year-old gunman armed with a Bushmaster .223 semiautomatic rifle and two handguns forced his way into the school and killed 26 people — including 20 children — before turning his gun on himself. The incident has rekindled the national gun control conversation, which in turn has spurred a rush on guns and ammo.
In some cases, prospective buyers are not particular about the type of gun; they just want a gun.
“I had one lady who called today and said that she didn’t really care but she didn’t like what was going on and was going to buy a gun,” Hancock said Monday. “She wound up buying a .38 (handgun).”
For the most part, though, the biggest demand is for guns that meet the definition of an assault weapon — “home defense shotguns, ARs, SKSs, AKs, and all the ammo that goes with that stuff,” Hancock said.
U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., has proposed renewing the 1994 federal Assault Weapons Ban, which expired in 2004. Feinstein’s proposal would define as an assault weapon any semiautomatic weapon with a detachable magazine and one military characteristic, such as a bayonet lug or the ability to attach a flash suppressor. If approved by Congress, the manufacture, sale and transfer of all guns meeting those specifications would be prohibited. Current owners of the guns would be required to register the firearms with the federal government, and the guns would be forfeited upon the death of the owner.
The proposal would also ban magazines capable of holding more than 10 rounds.
While President Barack Obama has not pledged direct support for Feinstein’s proposals, he has called for a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.
Police say the primary gun used by the Sandy Hook shooter was a Bushmaster .223, a semiautomatic rifle styled after the AR-15 made popular by the U.S. military. The .223 is among the most widely available guns falling under the assault weapon criteria.
In the aftermath of Sandy Hook, the AR-style .223 rifles are difficult to find. Ammunition for the guns is even harder to locate.
At the Oneida Walmart, a .223 was received by the store on Monday morning and displayed for only minutes before it was purchased.
With demand soaring, many distributors have raised their prices. The .223 at Walmart Monday sold for $589 — the price it was listed for before the shooting. That is not the case everywhere.
“ARs that sold for $600 (before Sandy Hook) are up to $1,200 now,” Hancock said.
The last major gun control law in the U.S. was the 1994 ban on assault weapons, which was allowed to expire in 2004. While then-President George W. Bush expressed his desire to see the ban made permanent, a Republican-led Congress refused to take up the matter and advocates of the ban criticized Bush for not pushing harder for the ban to be made permanent.
President Obama’s election in 2008 — coupled by a statement by attorney general Eric Holder shortly after Obama’s inauguration that the administration would pursue a new assault weapons ban — sparked a similar gun rush. But shop owners say the current rush far exceeds the uptick in gun sales four years ago.
“It’s a full-time job to stay on the phone and keep guns coming in,” said Steve Crabtree, who owns Crabtree Gun Sales & Repair in Winfield. “I work double shifts just to keep the product flowing.”
The trickle-down effect from the gun rush has impacted most ammunition. Most gun shops have shotgun ammunition and certain rifle and handgun ammo. Beyond that, the pickings are slim, especially for .223, .40 and .45.
Despite there being no proposal to ban or limit .22 rifles or handguns, the small rimfire cartridge has become one of the most difficult types of ammo to find. Stores that are able to receive a shipment quickly sell out. The Sportsman’s Guide, one of the most popular mail order companies, is informing customers that .22 ammo is on back-order until August.
Crabtree called the shortage the result of a perfect storm of sorts.
“The supply of .22 ammo was already short, and the increased demand has bled out what was left,” he said.
Among the factors were a manufacturing slowdown, in part due to the increased price of metals and in part due to the time of year, and the manufacturers’ obligation to fulfill federal contracts — it was revealed in August, for example, that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security had ordered an additional hundreds of thousands of ammo cartridges.
“The fact is that the (Sandy Hook) shooting occurred right at the point when inventory is at the lowest point of the year,” Crabtree said. “The sudden desire for guns hit at the industry’s worst time.”
Crabtree said he still has limited supplies of most types of ammo, including 9mm, .40 caliber and .223 caliber.
“I went through it in ‘89 and I went through it in ‘94,” he said. “I was fortunate enough to see it coming and make sure I had sufficient stock.”
Hancock also said that he has managed to weather the storm relatively well, with some 9mm and .223 ammo still in stock, but added that availability is becoming more difficult.
“It’s horrible,” he said. “We try to call and book something and they don’t have it. I’ve been lucky to be able to find some of it and keep it going and keep a lot of this stuff in, (but) now a lot of prices are getting so high on stuff that’s out there that I haven’t been buying.”
As supplies become more limited, many retailers have begun limiting customers’ purchases in recent days. While the Oneida Walmart is not limiting ammo purchases, its counterpart in Jamestown is limiting customers to two boxes of ammo per day. Other Walmart stores are limiting customers to five boxes per day.
“Most gun shop owners are doing what they can to help everybody without running anyone off,” Crabtree said. “I tell customers that if you want extra .223 ammo, you have to buy the .223. We don’t need hoarding of ammo; that hurts everybody.”
In the meantime, everyone from target shooters to hunters to law enforcement agencies have felt the cramp as demand far outpaces the supply of available ammunition. And while gun shops like Buckhorn and Crabtree’s are swamped, shop owners say that is not necessarily a good thing.
“It helps and it hurts,” Crabtree said. “It only helps if you stock a particular gun and have plenty of them. If someone comes in looking for a particular gun and I don’t have it or can’t get it, I lose an opportunity to make that sale.”
When it will end is anyone’s guess, but most shop owners do not foresee it stalling any time soon.
“As long as the news media keeps pushing this gun ban, it’s going to keep up,” Hancock said. “It seems like they’ve sorta declared war (on guns).”
Gun Permits On Increase
Amid a mad dash for guns and ammo is a significant increase in the number of citizens applying for handgun carry permits.
While the number of handgun permit holders has been steadily increasing for years, instructors say the increased safety awareness created by recent high-profile shootings has prompted even more citizens to seek permits.
“We had 186 people from nine different counties complete the lecture for the carry class on Saturday,” said James Mixon, a firearms instructor and owner of Mixon’s Emporium in Allardt. “The previous largest class had been just under 100. It was standing room only at the Jamestown courthouse.”
Bill Miller, an Oneida police officer and certified firearms instructor who conducts the Defensive Concepts carry permit classes, said he has received an increased number of calls from persons interested in obtaining a permit.
“A lot of it is sheer panic,” Miller said. “They’re afraid if they don’t go ahead and get it now that handgun permits will be done away with. So they’re rushing out, getting their carry permit and I’d say 60 percent, maybe 70 percent, won’t ever carry a firearm.”
While some cite fear that the federal government will clamp down on the issuance of carry permits, others say a desire for self-defense is prompting them to obtain a permit.
Tristin Jacobs, an elementary teacher, is representative of the latter.
“I have thought about it before but (the Sandy Hook) incident just reminded me how dangerous and unpredictable this world can be and it seems a little more important now,” Jacobs said.
Vince Lillard, who commutes to Knoxville for work each day, echoed that sentiment.
“I have thought about it before. But whenever I hear about a shooting, I think ‘I really need to go do that,’” he said.
“It’s definitely picked up quite a bit on my end,” Miller said. “But now the trouble is ammunition. Manufacturers can’t keep up with supply.”
Tennessee is one of 49 states to issue handgun carry permits. A recent court ruling demanded that the last remaining holdout, Illinois, adopt a right-to-carry law and begin issuing permits.
The Volunteer State is generally one of the least restrictive when it comes to obtaining a permit. It is considered a “shall-issue” state, meaning that qualified applicants cannot be denied a permit.
The state also has reciprocal agreements with most other states that permits traveling permit holders to go armed in those states.
Tennessee law requires that interested persons attend a training course that involves several hours of instruction in a classroom setting, followed by a handling and shooting demonstration on a range. Applicants must demonstrate knowledge of firearm safety and shooting ability by passing an evaluation that follows each portion of the course.
Following the successful completion of the course, applicants must successfully undergo an FBI background check, submit to fingerprinting and pay a licensing fee to the state. Convicted felons and certain others are barred from being issued a carry permit.
Even with a handgun permit, there are some places — such as any government building, school, airport or business that does not permit it — where firearms cannot be carried in Tennessee.