Prices have more than doubled over past year in some shops, retailers are putting limits on the amount a customer can buy, and some common types of ammunition, such as .22-caliber long rifle shells, are hard to get.
The National Shooting Sports Foundation, which represents ammunition makers, retailers, hunters and sport shooters, attributes what it calls "spot shortages" around the country to rising popularity of sport-shooting and hunting, and to people who are "keeping firearms for personal and home defense."
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in December reported recently that hunting license sales were up 9% from 2006 to 2011, reversing a 25-year decline. Michael Hampton, Jr., executive director of the National Skeet Shooting Association and the National Sporting Clays Association, says participation in those sports, which includes up to 4 million participants in each sport, is growing 3-5% annually.
But retailers say much of the demand is from gun owners who are stockpiling in case certain weapons are banned, who believe that economic chaos may be coming, or who are driven by rumors of inevitable background checks or rising taxes on ammunition. Gun sellers and owners say a run on ammunition began shortly after President Obama was re-elected, and has intensified in the gun-violence debate since the December mass killing of 20 children and six adults at a school in Newtown, Conn.
"We absolutely are in uncharted territory," said Larry Hyatt, of the family-owned Hyatt Gun Shop in Charlotte, N.C.. "Our store is 53 years old, and we have never seen anything like this. We have had some spot shortages and busy gun times in the past. This is a level (of demand) never before seen."
He adds: "The political turmoil is intensifying it. People feel like this administration is very anti-gun, and they are going for the legal gun owner." Among the rumors he hears, he says, are that taxes on ammunition are going up and that background checks for ammunition purchases are coming.
"Whether true or not, this information is out there, and people are getting it while they can," Hyatt says.
He is limiting sales of .22-caliber to one box, and is running low on everything from holsters to cleaning brushes.
Mike Wastler, manager of Bart's Sports World in Glen Burnie, Md., says he is also having trouble getting guns and ammunition from manufacturers who are "producing 24/7."
He says that even before Obama's re-election there was rising demand from people worried about economic chaos. Sales "went crazy" after Obama proposed banning assault weapons, he says
Wastler says certain types of .22 shells are "non-existent" in his store, and that others, like 9 mm, and .40 and .45 caliber are "very, very short." So are replacements parts for guns, he says.
While there are proposals to ban assault weapons, outlaw certain types of armor-piercing bullets, restrict the number of rounds in magazines for some guns, and end online ammunition sales, Obama and leading anti-gun violence proponents on Capitol Hill have not proposed background checks for ammunition, or restricting the amount of sales.
The White House would not comment on the ammunition shortage, but Obama has asserted he is not out to infringe on Second Amendment rights.
Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, D-N.Y., has introduced legislation that would effectively ban online sales of ammunition, would require ammunition sellers to have a license, and to report to federal authorities the sale of more than 1,000 rounds of ammunition to a single person. But McCarthy also says on her web site that protecting the Second Amendment right to bear arms for legal gun owners is one of her top priorities.
Her spokesman, Shams Tarek, says gun-rights advocates "are putting out this fear that people are trying to take away their guns, put really onerous restrictions on them, when that is not the case."
The run on ammunition comes amid Internet discussion about recent purchases of ammunition by the Department of Homeland Security and Social Security Administration.
Homeland Security solicited bids for up to 1.1 billion rounds of ammunition for over the next five years, but agency spokesman Marsha Catron says purchases may not run that high, and that most of it would go to required training for about 130,000 armed federal agents in various agencies. The DHS ammunition purchases have been steady since 2009.
Last year, after the Social Security Administration solicited bids for 174,000 rounds of .357 ammunition, the agency got so many questions from the public about why it needed that powerful of a bullet that its inspector general's office put out a statement explaining why.
The Social Security Administration has 295 armed agents that protect offices around the country, and that ammunition is standard issue for the arms they carry on the job, the agency said.
"Our special agents need to be armed and trained appropriately," read the Social Security statement. "They not only investigate allegations of Social Security fraud, but they also are called to respond to threats against Social Security offices, employees and customers."
Bid winner for the Homeland Security ammunition was ATK Armament Systems, a division of Alliant Technosystems Inc., and a major supplier of guns and ammunition for the military.
According to a IBISWorld, a market analyst, ATK Armament is expected to post a 10% increase in revenue, to $1.7 billion, in 2013.
"While most Americans have cut back on their purchases of cars, clothing and other luxuries … gun enthusiasts are working themselves into a frenzy over what another four years under the Obama administration may hold for gun laws,'' IBISWorld reported in October. "As a result, they are purchasing firearms and ammunition at record rates.''
Greg Pacholczyk, who shoots everything from pistols to the AR-15 that the Obama administration wants to ban, says he is not in a frenzy, but that if he is in a store that carries ammunition, he looks to buy. The Marriottsville, Md., resident says AR-15 semi-automatic rifles are very hard to find for purchase, and that ammunition for it is hard to find, too.
"Gun replacement parts — if you have to find something as simple as a firing pin for an AR-15," it is very difficult, he says. "You read on the blogs people are practically giving away their first born for a little piece of metal."