By FRED SCHULTE
The Center for Public Integrity
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 fire up to 100 rounds without reloading, which critics argue have been tied to deadly mass shootings and should be outlawed.
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.
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.”
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.”