WASHINGTON, D.C. — Legislation to regulate online purchases of ammunition and high-capacity magazines is bringing new attention to a growing cyberspace ammo market that’s operated with little government oversight.
Under federal law, firearms dealers must obtain federal licenses and keep records of their weapons transactions, but there’s virtually no federal regulation of ammunition suppliers or sales — though there was before 1986. Adults who want to stockpile large amounts of ammo can buy it from dozens of websites that specialize in bulk sales, often at low prices. Some sites hawk magazines that hold up to 100 rounds, which critics argue have been tied to deadly mass shootings and should be outlawed.
Earlier this month, U.S. Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, D-N.Y., refiled a bill from last summer that would end online and mail-order sales by requiring that ammunition transactions take place “face to face.” The bill also would license ammo dealers and require them to report purchases of 1,000 rounds or more, which McCarthy has said would bring ammunition sales “out of the shadows and into the light, where criminals can’t hide and responsible dealers can act as a line of defense against the planning and stockpiling of a potential mass killer.”
Some of the online sellers list no names of their owners, give only post office boxes as their addresses and ship merchandise to customers using overnight couriers. Buyers can access a special search engine to compare inventory and prices at more than 30 dealers.
Nima Samadi, who follows the $3 billion-a-year small arms industry for the market research firm IBISWorld, said online ammo sales had been gaining in popularity “due to convenience and lower prices consumers can get by buying in bulk online.”
The 1986 Firearm Owners’ Protection Act made retail interstate shipments of ammunition legal. The law allowed ammunition to be shipped to individuals through the mail and eliminated prior record-keeping requirements.
When gun control advocates proposed restricting online ammo sales last summer, the National Rifle Association noted on its website that officials of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives had concluded by the 1980s that licensing ammo dealers for nearly two decades had provided “no substantial law enforcement value” in keeping bullets out of the wrong hands. Officials supported loosening regulation at that time. ATF spokesman Mike Campbell said in an interview that the agency no longer commented on pending legislation.
Some gun control advocates in Congress hope that public outrage over the massacre last month in Newtown, Conn., in which 20 elementary school children and six school employees were killed, will prompt a closer look at these businesses.
In a separate action, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said last week that he’d push for instant background checks to prevent ammo from being sold to felons, the mentally ill and others who are prohibited from buying firearms. In a prepared statement, Blumenthal called ammunition sales “the black hole in gun violence prevention.”
Tighter regulation “is certainly a possibility,” said Samadi, the arms industry analyst. But public opinion is fickle, he said. “It’s hard to accurately predict what will happen.”
Selling ammo online “is a somewhat new and developing industry and there isn’t too much information out there,” he added.
The NRA strongly opposes ammunition regulation. It argues on its website that banning online ammo sales “would turn back the clock to the days when ammunition was only available in person at licensed stores, driving up prices and making less popular cartridges nearly unobtainable for millions of lawful gun owners.”
The National Shooting Sports Foundation, an industry trade group, wouldn’t comment for this story. In the past, however, the group has said that regulations “would not affect criminals or their ability to obtain ammunition.”
Marc Gallagher, a co-owner of ammoseek.com, a search engine that helps buyers find the best prices, agrees. He said in an email that it “appears that the lawmakers proposing such laws are merely attempting to capitalize on horrible tragedies to further their agenda and disdain for the Second Amendment.”
Such legislation “would do nothing to prevent criminals and crazy people from doing horrible things with guns,” Gallagher wrote in an email. “It would only prevent honest and law-abiding citizens from being able to freely purchase ammunition online.”
Gun control forces thus far have made limited headway against that argument — and concerns that an online ban would infringe on private business.
The courts struck down a 2009 California law that required all handgun ammo sales to be face-to-face, though supporters of the law are trying to reinstate it this year. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said this month that he favored a state ban on online ammunition shipments. While a few other states and some localities have restricted shipments of ammo or large-capacity magazines to residents, efforts at federal regulation have stalled.
That was the case last July, when Sen. Frank Lautenberg , D-N.J., and McCarthy introduced companion bills in the Senate and House of Representatives, called the Stop Online Ammunition Sales Act, on the heels of the movie theater shootings in Aurora, Colo., in which 12 people died and dozens were wounded.
Police found an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle magazine capable of firing 100 rounds at the scene. Authorities said at the time that the accused shooter, James Holmes, who was then 24, had bought four guns at local gun stores and more than 6,000 rounds of ammo online. One of the firms that authorities tied to those sales was bulkammo.com, according to news reports.
The company’s lawyer, Oliver Adams of Knoxville, Tenn., didn’t respond to requests for comment from the Center for Public Integrity. Last July, he told Bloomberg and other news outlets that the company was “actively assisting in the investigation.”
The firm maintains a St. Louis post office box and, like online retailers of other products, takes orders 24 hours a day, with a promise to ship merchandise promptly. Federally licensed firearms dealers must have a “premises address,” where transactions take place and federal agents may inspect inventories and records.
The company requires buyers to certify, among other things, that they’re at least 21 years old, have never been convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence charges or other crimes and have “not been adjudicated as a mental defective” or “committed to any mental institution.” (Under federal law, people over 18 years of age may purchase rifle ammunition; those over 21 may buy handgun ammo.)
Other businesses list a wide range of ammo for sale, though several say they’re having a tough time filling rising demand. Calls and emails to several online dealers weren’t returned.
The price for .223 bullets, the size fired by the semi-automatic rifle used in the Newtown shootings, can start at $400 for 1,000 rounds. High-capacity magazines start at about $28, though they can cost much more, depending on the manufacturer and the number of rounds they hold.
Although online ammunition dealers don’t appear to have their own lobbying organization in Washington, some have been contributing to an NRA fund called the National Endowment for the Protection of the Second Amendment.
MidwayUSA, a Missouri company, began a program in 1992 that asks customers to “round up” the total of each order to the nearest dollar or higher. Other dealers signed on and together have sent some $9.5 million to the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action, a lobbying arm, according to the company’s website. MidwayUSA didn’t respond to requests for comment.
In December, MidwayUSA announced that contributions topped $1 million for 2012, the most since the round-up program started. That drew a note of thanks from NRA official Chris Cox, according to the company’s website.
“With the re-election of President Obama, America can bank on more attempts to diminish our freedom and constant legal challenges to the Second Amendment,” Cox said. “This significant support is coming at a time of great need.”
The Center for Public Integrity is a nonprofit independent investigative news outlet. For more of its stories go to publicintegrity.org.