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The Pandemic Raised The Price Of Ammunition, Leaving Police Departments Struggling

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Across the country, police departments are having a difficult time getting ammunition. Demand and prices are soaring while supply is dwindling. Adam Pinsker of member station WFIU reports that's leaving some police departments competing with the public to buy bullets. And just a warning - our piece does contain the sound of gunfire.

ADAM PINSKER, BYLINE: The southern Indiana community of Loogootee is small enough that you can almost count the cars driving by.

(SOUNDBITE OF VEHICLE PASSING)

PINSKER: Jim Floyd has been police chief here in this town of fewer than 3,000 people since the beginning of the year.

JIM FLOYD: Drug addiction - you know, that's a prevalent problem. That's probably our main criminal act right now.

PINSKER: He's facing another problem - a lack of ammunition for the 10 full-time and two part-time officers.

FLOYD: I called around southwest Indiana, you know, looking for ammunition. There was none on the shelves.

PINSKER: That's because increased demand during the pandemic is still overwhelming ammunition manufacturers. Most small and mid-sized police departments buy their ammo from the same retail outlets frequented by your everyday gun owners. Lieutenant Matt Harris is with Columbus, Ind.'s, police department. He says his department didn't get its 2020 shipment until the end of last year.

MATT HARRIS: We just placed our order for 2022. So - and we don't know when that's going to arrive. So right now, we're looking at least a year out from getting something that used to take us three to four weeks.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUN FIRING)

PINSKER: Harris says the state requires all police officers to train twice a year at the firing range to stay compliant. Harris prefers to have his officers go beyond the bare minimum by giving them extra range time, but that may not be an option this year.

HARRIS: We want to allow the officers to have additional opportunities to go out and receive extra training because, in our eyes, just going out a couple times a year is not good enough.

PINSKER: The National Shooting Sports Foundation represents firearms and ammunition manufacturers. Spokesman Mark Oliva compares the bullet-buying frenzy to the toilet paper effect.

MARK OLIVA: The same thing that we saw last spring as this COVID pandemic settled in, people became concerned that they weren't going to be able to get the things that they needed. So they started to buy them when they saw that they were available.

PINSKER: Early on in the pandemic, Oliva says President Trump designated employees at ammunition factories as essential workers, so they never shut down.

OLIVA: Literally every box of ammunition that they make today is getting put on a truck tomorrow and getting pushed out to the markets. For most police departments, they are buying their ammunition through commercial sales. So they're buying it from local retailers.

PINSKER: Oliva says the average price for a box of 50 9 mm bullets cost around $30 before the pandemic. In some places, that same box costs nearly double that today. The cost increase is trickling down to small communities like Loogootee, where Chief Floyd says he's asking the city council for a budget increase just to buy more bullets.

FLOYD: There was, I think, $500 in the budget. And I asked for an additional $2,500 because of the situation we were in.

PINSKER: Supply chain experts don't see this shortage ending any time soon. They say it could be another year before the ammunition squeeze subsides.

For NPR News, I'm Adam Pinsker in Bloomington, Ind.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLOUDKICKER'S "EXPLORE, BE CURIOUS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.