Afternoons are a busy time for Larry John.
His Brimfield gun shop, Sporting Defense LLC, is doing a brisk business these days. It could be better if he could get enough guns and ammunition to keep up with the demands of target shooters, gun enthusiasts and concealed-carry permit holders.
"All my distributors are sold out," he said, standing behind the counter of the store. Firearms are "going out as rapidly as I can get them in."
He's also limiting sales of ammunition, typically selling no more than two boxes to customers. Ammunition in the calibers .22, .380, .40, .45 and 9mm is in short supply. His price for 9mm ammunition has more than doubled since December, from $12-13 a box to $25.
Smaller, cheaper .22-caliber ammunition is going for $19 to $25 for a box of 500 rounds, John said. Customers who stopped at his shop on Saturday said they were having trouble finding it at retail stores such as Walmart.
John, who opened at 4106 S.R. 43 in Brimfield in August 2012 after 23 years in home improvement and remodeling, said the first three months of business were slow. Then on Dec. 14, 26 children and adults were shot to death at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. The resulting political atmosphere, with some Americans calling for more gun control and Second Amendment advocates hitting back over the right to bear arms, has helped create demand that has outstripped supplies.
Though it wasn't one of the weapons used in the Sandy Hook shooting, John said demand for the AR-15 semiautomatic rifle increased overnight -- first the ammo it takes, then the guns themselves, then accessories "evaporated" off the shelves. The weapon, which is the civilian version of the famous M-16 rifle of the Vietnam era, is popular for target shooting and personal protection, according to gun enthusiasts and anecdotal evidence.
People worried about increased regulation of gun ownership and so-called "preppers," who believe that society may break down and are readying themselves by stocking up on guns, ammunition and emergency supplies, also are driving some of the demand, according to John and other people involved in the industry.
Manufacturers and distributors "can't just add manufacturing capacity overnight," he said. Currently, 9mm, .40 and .45-caliber ammunition is the toughest to find, so he travels to gun shows, trades for it, or buys it from customers.
The reasons behind the shortage are a "perfect storm" of conditions, including politics and economics, said Amanda Suffecool, vice president at Targething, a firearms training facility and gun shop on Fenstermaker Road in Nelson. A mechanical engineer during the day, Suffecool also is a firearms trainer and co-host of "Targething Eye on the Target," a shooting sports show Sundays at 5 p.m. on WNIR talk radio.
She said the current shortage coincided with three events: President Barack Obama's re-election in November, the Sandy Hook shootings and the holiday season.
Suffecool said the Sandy Hook tragedy happened right before Christmas and New Years, when ammo manufacturers typically shut down for the holidays. Shipping companies like UPS are busy delivering Christmas presents, and with distributors out of business for two weeks or so, "you have to wait until the holidays are over" for supply to catch up with demand.
Also, as Suffecool put it, "some politicians started grandstanding," saying "'We need to stop allowing people to have guns, to have this and that.'" Threats or perceived threats to gun ownership lead to "people stocking up," she said.
"Typically when you change parties one way or another, gun sales are volatile for a while," Suffecool said. "Until people figure out what the party (in power) is going to do, they become supersensitive."
Limited by distributors on how many firearms and how much ammunition it can buy, Targething does not limit shooters on how much ammunition they can buy, even as it has a hard time keeping enough firearms in stock to keep up with customers' demands, Suffecool said.
"Our policy is not to limit. If we've got it and they want it, they can have it. We don't sell range time if we don't sell ammo," she said.
Suffecool said the production side of manufacturing ammo also plays a role in supply shortages. Manufacturers make multiple types of ammo on the same process line, she said, and "what is most popular is being produced more, but being pulled off the shelf quicker."
Also affecting ammunition prices and supplies are the markets for raw materials -- in the case of ammunition, that includes brass for shell casings, lead and copper for bullets and gunpowder.
"Raw materials were on the upswing," she said. "You'd be crazy if you were the guy who bought brass or lead or powder and stripped the shelves. Now you've cleaned out the pipeline" of raw materials.
Handloading or reloading is assembling ammunition using spent or purchased casings, gunpowder, bullets or shot and primers. It is said by many shooters to be more cost-effective than purchasing large amounts of ammunition. Some shooters reload for control or because, after purchasing the required equipment, it can be less expensive than purchasing ammo at retail prices.
It is also "a careful man's sport," Suffecool said. "If you are not a careful person, reloading is not for you,"
Manufacturers of reloading tools, presses and dies that Targething deals with, such as Dillon Precision Products of Arizona, "are at max capacity." Dillon's website currently has a notice that the company is experiencing "overwhelming demand" and orders may take six to eight weeks to ship.
Firearms sales is "not the cakewalk that people think it is" as gun shop owners have to work harder to replace inventory and prices are rising, Suffecool said. She told the story of an auction she recently attended where guns that typically go for less than $1,000 sold for $1,500, and others in the $1,200-to-$1,500 range sold for $2,500.
John said he saw the same with semiautomatic rifles: Prices at or more than double their retail or typical value.
Not only is John's supply of handguns low, but he is selling more and more long guns, he said. As of Saturday, almost his entire stock was on display in the store, which he admitted was "kind of picked-over."
He said the current background checks that are in place work to keep guns out of the hands of felons, people with a history of violence or those have been committed for mental health reasons by a judge. Criminals are another matter.
"They're going to get them illegally or legally, any way they can," he said.
Follow Dave O'Brien on Twitter at @RCCrimeWatch
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