On December 31, a century-old Missouri smelter shut its doors. The occasion further propelled a bizarre conspiracy theory that the "anti-gun" Obama administration is buying up and eradicating bullet supplies.
Paula Cartwright is a "lifelong gun owner" and part-time employee at Triggers, a gun shop in the US state of Wyoming. Gun ownership in Wyoming is among the highest in the US. As such, the 41-year-old clerk has been on the front lines, so to speak, as ammunition prices have simultaneously spiked in price and disappeared from her shelves.
"Everybody is stocking up on ammo," she told DW. "We don't have any .380 ammo, and we can't keep .22 long rifles on the shelf. Right now we have four little boxes of [.22 long rifle ammunition], and that's highly unusual." Typically, her shelves would be piled with them.
For gun owners, bullets can still be found and purchased - but at prices that have led some to speculate of a "bullet bubble." At the online platform of the popular American magazine Guns and Ammo, a forum thread in December entitled "The last person to post in this thread wins a brick of .22 ammo" quickly prompted a reply that no one would win, since, "At the present prices, nobody can afford to put up a brick of .22 as the prize."
A number of factors influence the high price of bullets, but in 2013 it stemmed largely from a single theory proposed on a fringe conspiracy website that gained an astonishing amount of traction. Over the course of this year, the theory prompted a Congressional investigation, a legislative proposal known as the AMMO Act of 2013, and it forced the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to publicly deny that it was "stockpiling" ammunition.
The conspiracy began with a rhetorical article on the Info Wars website run by Alex Jones, a 39-year-old radio journalist, author, documentarian and conspiracy theorist. Through his work or in public interviews, he often claims active US government involvement - whether in the 9/11 attacks or the Boston Marathon bombings - where Congressional and journalistic investigations have concluded the opposite.
The article asked why the DHS was issuing a procurement request for 450 million hollow point bullets. It was posted quietly in March 2012. Even as the number grew to 1.6 billion bullets of all varieties over the following months, few outside conspiracy theory networks and fact-checking websites paid attention. In late 2012, the NRA issued a written statement politely debunking the theory and explaining the rationale behind the purchases by the government agency. Other experts reiterated that the DHS' procurement request was not an order but rather a query to see which manufacturers could theoretically meet such an order.
So too did gun manufacturers deny the rumors, says gun rights lawyer Steve Halbrook. The second amendment expert told DW that current ammunition scarcity is both a self-fulfilling prophecy and part of a regular cycle.
"We've had ammo shortages since the Iraq and Afghanistan wars," he said.
Media on board
In spite of the numerous denials, the influential Drudge Report news aggregator website began linking to some of the Info Wars articles in early 2013. In March, a Forbes article requested a "national conversation" on the massive DHS "purchases." Fox news personality Lou Dobbs further fanned the flames when he asked where, exactly, those "two billion" bullets had gone.
One month later, Republican legislators introduced the Ammunition Management for More Obtainability Act of 2013 (AMMO), seeking to restrict the DHS' ability to source such quantities of ammunition.
Though the bill died, it continued receiving vocal support in the following months and lent an air of credibility to far-fetched claims that the Obama administration was stockpiling ammunition to reduce public access to it.
"When Obama was in the Illinois legislature - and then later a senator from Illinois to the US Congress - he did support very strong restrictions on firearms," Halbrook told DW. As president, however, no such restrictions have been enacted even though the president has voiced support for them. Ammunition shortages, the lawyer added, are simply not the result of administration policy.
A legal loophole?
Though the ammunition conspiracy theory appears to be well off the mark, it raises an interesting legal prospect: With rights to bear firearms firmly entrenched in the second amendment to the US Constitution, could an anti-gun administration theoretically evade that legal protection through an anti-bullet policy instead?
Halbrook says no. "Bullets, like guns, are protected under the second amendment to the US constitution," he says. As evidence he cites the "District of Columbia v. Heller" case, one he personally and successfully argued before the US Supreme Court, which overturned a Washington, D.C. law requiring guns to remain unloaded, disassembled or bound by a trigger lock.
Nor are there any real "loopholes" for an anti-gun administration to pursue. Previous bills aimed at restricting access to ammunition by levying taxes of up to 500 percent have received no support at the federal or state level. More recently, a California law prohibiting the use of lead in hunting ammunition received widespread condemnation by gun rights activists - but affects shotgun pellets almost exclusively and is rooted in the detrimental effects lead has on the environment.
Lead is where the conspiracy theory will live on into 2014. Rather than adhere to more restrictive air standards put in place by the Environmental Protection Agency, the Doe Run lead bullion smelter, the last of its kind in the US, will close on December 31. Since lead is used in some forms of ammunition, conspiracy theorists view it as yet another attempt to clamp down on ammunition supplies.
Halbrook, however, is having none of it. "Three percent of US lead is used to make bullets and shotgun shells, and its not obtained from the Doe Run center," he said. "[Ammunition manufacturers] use harder lead mixed with tin and other metals."
Whether Halbrook's statements - or any other statements for that matter - can quell conspiracy theories and ultimately drop the price of ammunition seems unlikely.
When told of the unfounded rumors that, in closing Doe Run, the US government was targeting ammunition supplies, Paula Cartwright at Triggers gun shop said, "I don't think they're rumors."