Every Friday as the sun comes up, a crowd forms outside Dick's Sporting Goods in Brandon waiting for the doors to open at 9.
They aren't there for Black Friday door-buster deals.
They want bullets.
Miss first dibs on the Friday shipments, and gun owners know the pickings will be slim to none. Dick's, like virtually every other store that sells guns, has been suffering from a yearlong shortage of pistol and rifle ammunition. And there's no end in sight.
"You really, really have to hunt it down," said Joshua Reynerson, who was among 15 people standing in line for ammo on Friday, a number that has sometimes reached 50. "It's highly frustrating."
Reynerson has been coming to the store every Friday since about January. The 22-year-old from Riverview wants handgun ammo for target shooting with friends and refuses to pay the inflated prices offered at gun shows or online.
For gun enthusiasts here and across the country, the shortage is the worst they've ever seen. Faced with near-empty shelves, many stores have set limits on the number of rounds people can buy at one time. Instead of getting shipments of cases of ammunition, stores get boxes.
In the case of Dick's, a sign at the gun counter limits customers to three boxes of rifle and pistol ammo and one box of bulk packs of 150 rounds or more. In February, the limit was 200.
The shortage isn't just limited to retail stores. Law enforcement agencies nationwide are feeling the squeeze, including the Pasco County Sheriff's Office, which canceled an ammo order because of repeated delays. Just a few weeks ago, the police chief of Proctor, Minn., had to ask citizens to lend his agency their personal supplies until the order for training ammo came in.
How is a prolonged shortage possible in the land of plenty? Reasons range from simple economics of supply and demand to a government conspiracy fueled by President Barack Obama's antigun agenda. But not even the National Rifle Association buys that one.
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That's not to say the Obama administration hasn't played a role.
Gun sales have been on the rise since Obama took office and surged following his re-election in November, triggering some to call him the best unintentional gun salesman in history. Then 20 children and six adults were killed by a gunman at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., renewing emotional calls for tighter gun control.
Obama lost in his fight to expand the system of background checks but has vowed to continue to seek gun-control measures. Fearing an inevitable crackdown, some gun owners who had already hit the panic button went into full stockpiling mode. Many accustomed to buying one box of ammunition at a time bought five or 10.
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Also factoring into the shortage are plans by the Department of Homeland Security to buy a more than 1.6 billion rounds of ammunition in the next four or five years, a huge amount even by government standards. About 750,000 rounds would be for its training centers, which offer firearms training to tens of thousands of federal law enforcement officers. The rest would go to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, the second-largest federal criminal investigative agency.
Stored properly, the stash could last for years. (Ammo, if kept dry, generally doesn't expire.) Still, that's a lot of ammo. On average, the typical law enforcement officer carries 45 rounds while on duty and uses a few hundred rounds during training exercises.
Fierce fans of the Second Amendment wonder if the government's sudden need to buy so much ammunition is really a backhanded way to force gun control. If people can't buy bullets, they won't be able to shoot guns.
Ammunition makers aren't so sure. Federal Premium Ammunition, a large manufacturer in Minnesota, said Homeland Security's contract makes up a very small percentage of its total output and any talk about the federal government restricting availability is "false" and "baseless."
"This contract is not taking ammunition away from civilians," states a message on its website. "The current increase in demand is attributed to the civilian market."
The NRA agrees the shortage isn't government-induced. It backs the position of the National Shooting Sports Foundation that manufacturers simply can't keep up with consumer demand. Factories are working around the clock but don't have enough tooling, infrastructure or raw materials. Building more ammomaking machines takes time.
Perfect storm. That's how Joe Petrella, owner of Take Aim Guns in Palm Harbor, described the convergence of events surrounding the shortage. First the rifle ammo dried up. Then the pistol ammo. At one point, he had to split boxes of rounds into little baggies just so his customers didn't go empty-handed.
"It has been very difficult for any one of the gun shops or ranges to purchase ammo. I take whatever I can get," he said. "Customers are concerned about it. There's lot of frustration."
Having been around for nearly 30 years, Take Aim has long-standing contacts with suppliers and has been able to keep a minimal ammo inventory, he said. Petrella has limits on almost every kind, but gets deliveries almost daily and in the past few months has seen the shortage of shotgun shells ease. Whereas he used to carry 10 or 15 kinds of a certain ammunition, he now has two or three.
"It used to be that we could call up suppliers and order cases or pallets," he said. "Now we can't order anything. They just call and tell us what they have and ask if we want it. We say 'yes.' "
Unlike some retailers, Petrella hasn't raised prices significantly, partly because he doesn't want to upset his loyal customers, but also because he's selling more of the premium, pricier brands that previously sat longer than the shelf. He's also carrying more Russian-made rifle ammo, a cheaper, inferior kind that in times of shortages is better than nothing.
The scarcity hasn't hurt his business, but it has squashed plans to open another store or a shooting range.
"A lot of people think gun shops are making a killing, but when you can't get the product, it's not as good as you think," he said.
Petrella wonders why Homeland Security wants so much ammunition.
So do some members of Congress.
In late April, two Oklahoma Republicans, Sen. Jim Inhofe and Rep. Frank Lucas, introduced legislation requiring the Government Accountability Office to conduct a report on the purchase of ammunition by federal agencies, except for the Department of Defense, and its effect on the civilian supply. The AMMO Act would prevent agencies from buying more ammunition if stockpiles are greater than what they were in previous administrations.
"President Obama has been adamant about curbing law-abiding Americans' access and opportunities to exercise their Second Amendment rights," Inhofe said in a press release. "One way the Obama administration is able to do this is by limiting what's available in the market with federal agencies purchasing unnecessary stockpiles of ammunition."
Marion Hammer, the NRA's Florida lobbyist in Tallahassee, said she is hopeful the congressional inquiry will yield some answers. She didn't want to speculate on Homeland Security's ammo needs but described the situation as "another thing going on in this administration that is not just puzzling, but it frightens people."
"When people start hearing there's a shortage, everyone rushes out immediately to stockpile, and when people start stockpiling, it only exacerbates the shortage," she said.
She doesn't argue against hoarding — "it's not up to me to tell people what to do" — but thinks at some point the shortage will run its course.
Doug Jackson of Bill Jackson's Shop for Adventure in Pinellas Park said it's not unusual for customers who already own 20,000 to 25,000 rounds of ammo to come in looking for more. The store has managed to keep a decent inventory of many products but has limits on hard-to-find bullets and, in some cases, restricts ammo purchases to people using its shooting range.
Ordering large quantities months in advance — and paying promptly — has helped with stock flow, he said, but hasn't guaranteed products. Store employees routinely call suppliers about pending orders. One placed in 2009 still hasn't arrived.
But they aren't complaining. The store has experienced record sales in the past several months, Jackson said, mostly from the sale of gun-related items like cleaning kits and safes, which are also in short supply. Shoppers stopping by to check on ammo often leave with a sleeping bag or a canoe. Gun safety classes are booked.
Jackson can't predict when the ammo shortage will ease. But he knows it will take a while.
"In my opinion, if everyone stopped buying ammunition today, it would take suppliers six months to stock shelves around the country," he said.
The Pasco County Sheriff's Office hopes it doesn't take too long. The department had to cancel an ammo order placed in February because the supplier kept pushing back the delivery. It changed to a vendor promising shipment in the next 30 or 60 days but is still waiting.
Pasco needs the ammunition by October, when the department's 600 officers go through their annual weapons certification training. If the agency doesn't get the bullets, it might have to consider rescheduling the classes.
"At this point, it hasn't been a public safety issue, but it is challenging,'' sheriff's spokesman Doug Tobin said. "It's something our training officer definitely has to keep on top of. Otherwise, there could be a problem."
Susan Thurston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 225-3110.