FAIRBANKS — It’s common knowledge among frequent customers that Tuesdays are ammo days at Sportsman’s Warehouse in Fairbanks.

Ammunition shipments usually arrive on Tuesdays at the Johansen Expressway store. Popular calibers, such as .22 and .308, generally sell out in minutes despite a store-imposed limit of three small boxes or one large box per customer, hunting department manager Jason Kohfeld said. What used to be a three-week supply of ammunition sells in less than a week.  

The surge in demand has been seen across Fairbanks and across the country. It’s part of a nationwide trend that started in December after the Newtown, Conn., elementary school shooting and calls from President Barack Obama for new gun control laws, including restrictions on assault-style weapons and high-capacity magazines.

Demand has continued even after a bill to require gun show and Internet gun customers to get background checks, one of the meekest of the president’s proposed gun control laws, failed to go anywhere in Congress last month.

In Fairbanks, the shortage has led to often-empty shelves at retail stores and an inflated secondary market for ammo at gun shows and online. It’s also affected law enforcement’s ability to buy new ammunition but hasn’t led to cutbacks in firearms training as it has in some Lower 48 jurisdictions.

The view from the gun counter

Kohfeld has worked through several demand booms at the Sportman’s Warehouse. There was a surge before the November 2012 elections, another surge after the election and the current run on ammunition that’s continued since December.

Supplies also ran short when Obama was first elected in 2008, but that year there were additional factors, including more demand from the military — then fighting two wars — and shortages in the world lead market, he said. This year, ammo manufacturers are producing ammo as fast as they ever have, and the shortages are caused by the insatiable demand, he said.

“We’re doing everything we can to try to get customers what they want,” he said. “All the warehousers, the distributors nationwide, they’re allocaters now, they’re not warehousers. They get a shipment and it gets split up and goes directly back out the door.”

Behind the demand

Debates in Washington might have contributed to the most recent ammunition-buying frenzy, but local sellers and customers say other factors are more influential.

Joe Nava, a longtime Fairbanks firearms instructor, has been talking about the ammunition shortage for months on his KFAR-660 AM  radio show, “Shooter’s Corner.” Part of the shortage is caused by people buying more ammo when they see stores running low.  

“What I’ve been doing on my radio show for more than two years now is telling people to buy ammunition and stock it up. It’s going to be scarce, and it’s going to be expensive. Those people who did that, like me, have not been affected by the shortage because I’ve got enough to ride through this shortage and teach all my students until ammunition becomes available again,” he said.

Nava cites news of large ammo purchase from government agencies as another part of the problem. The largest are a five-year Department of Homeland Security contract reached last year for 450 million rounds and reports this year that Homeland Security is pursuing as many as 1.6 billion additional rounds.

These numbers have led some gun advocates to accuse the department of back-door gun control by taking ammunition off the market. The National Rifle Association, the nation’s largest gun-advocacy organization, has not taken an issue with the purchases. It issued a press release in August 2012 after discussions about the 450-million round contract took off on the Internet as well as in Congress.

“The mildest writers have questioned why seemingly mundane agencies would need ammunition at all; more incendiary authors suggest that these government agencies are preparing for a war with the American people,” the NRA stated in the press release.

The NRA concluded the scale of the ammo purchase wasn’t unusual for the number of law enforcement officers and urged members to focus on more direct threats to gun rights. “As most gun owners will agree, skepticism of government is healthy. But today, there are more than enough actual threats to the Second Amendment to keep gun owners busy.”

Nava said he doesn’t think there’s evidence the government is actively trying to manipulate the ammo market, but said the large purchases are taking ammunition away from private citizens.

“When they put in large orders like that, it just adds to the problem,” he said “I don’t know why Homeland Security needs so much ammunition.”

Gary Junk, a gunsmith and owner of Arctic Gun Works off Airport Way, does not sell much ammo. He occasionally buys it from customers moving out of state. Like any other small business, he finds it difficult to keep up with major retailers who have staff to order ammunition the moment manufacturers make it available.

 In addition to gun control debates in Congress, he cites fears of another economic downturn as a reason people stock up on ammo — for survival and defense.

“Everybody that has paid any attention to our news recently has heard the fears of our economy collapsing or going into a depression-type state. And how many people can remember stories from their parents and their grandparents of ‘Back in the Depression, we fed ourselves with a .22 rifle?,’” he said.

“They’re putting two and two together and saying not only can it help me feed myself, it’s not a half bad personal house protection gun, let’s go by some ammo. And when they walk in with that hoarding mentality, they’re not buying one or two packets, they’re buying as much as the store will allow.”

Setting the price

Junk also attributes part of the demand spike to scalpers, people who take advantage of the scarcity by purchasing ammo when it does become available and reselling it.

A quick look on the Fairbanks firearms section of popular Internet marketplace Alaska List last week returned mostly ads for firearms, although there were a handful of ads for .22, .223, 7-millimeter and 9-millimeter cartridges. Prices were higher than retail, but most posters did not match the profile of an obvious scalper. They advertised only a handful of boxes of leftover ammo.

Brent Amundsen, a youth minister in Fairbanks, was about halfway through selling 500 rounds of .22 long rifle ammunition. He was asking twice the retail price, $16 for a box of 50 RWS-brand ammo and $20 for a box of Remington. Amundsen said he was having trouble finding .22 ammo, which he uses for plinking and ptarmigan hunting, so he asked his wife to buy some while she was on a trip to Green Bay, Wisc. Supplies were low there, as well, so she had to visit several stores, but she ended up bringing back more than he needed, he said.  

The largest set of ammo on the Alaska List last week was a set of 6,000 rounds of CCI-brand .22 cartridges selling for $1,000. The man who posted the ad wrote in the listing he was selling the ammo because he had “too many rounds to count.”

An end in sight?

Is the ammunition shortage likely to continue?

In the retail world, Kohfeld said, they’re hearing from manufacturers that it will take at least a year to catch up with current demand.

At Arctic Gun Works, Junk also gives it a year, but predicted the ammo shortage is at its height.

“If everything goes the same as the last election, where after 10, 12 months everything kind of mellows out, which I expect to happen here, you will see cheap ammunition on the shelves for sale because the people who bought it who thought were going to quadruple their money selling it on Alaska List are going to be sitting there with a whole bunch of .22 ammo,” Junk said, “and they’re either going to have three-lifetime supplies to shoot up themselves or they’re going to have to sell it for at or less than price they bought it at.”

Nava also expects availability to improve. But he laughed out loud when asked if he thinks ammunition prices will ever drop in the Fairbanks area. “I don’t live in that kind of dream world,” he said.

Contact staff writer Sam Friedman at 459-7545. Follow him on Twitter, @FDNMcrime.