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Mar. 29—To protect and serve — while supplies last?
Police departments across Michigan are struggling to find ammunition during a national shortage, forcing some officials to cut back on training and shell out nearly triple the previous price for handgun and rifle rounds.
The shortage was created by last year's record number of gun sales, combined with ammunition factories shutting down or limiting production because of the COVID-19 pandemic, experts say.
"It's just a combination of things — you got millions of new gun owners buying up ammo right when COVID hit," said Grant Allen, the owner of Firing Line, an indoor firing range and gun shop in Westland. "Companies shut down because of COVID, and when they started back up, they were only at a quarter-staff. And the orders kept coming in."
And the demand persists despite rising costs, said Allen, who was a Westland police officer for 30 years.
While all ammunition is scarce, experts say it's particularly hard to find 9mm rounds — long the most popular for consumers, and the caliber many police departments recently adopted for their handguns, after years using more expensive .40 caliber rounds.
"For 9mm ammo, it used to be $15 for a box of 50 rounds; now, on the cheap side, it's $42 per box," Allen said.
But police are scrambling to find rounds of all calibers. The problem is so acute, Paw Paw Police Chief Eric Marshall said he plans to make the 330-mile roundtrip drive across the state to Firing Line to pick up 250 rounds of .40 caliber cartridges.
Allen is offering the rounds to Marshall and other cops at cost — which for .40 caliber cartridges is about $1 per round, up from about 30 cents prior to the shortage. Some sellers are asking about $2 per round for .40 caliber cartridges that as recently as last year sold for 50-70 cents per round.
"Many departments do tactical training with live ammo, but there's not enough ammo to do that now," said Marshall, who added he's waiting for two rifles he ordered from Allen to come in before trekking across the state.
He acknowledged it's a long drive for a mere 250 rounds — 25 each for his force of 10 officers — but he said he's desperate.
"You've got to get it wherever you can," he said. "When I found out I could get my hands on some ammo, I jumped on it."
Law enforcement experts say several events coalesced to cause the ammunition shortage.
Early in the COVID pandemic, there was a record spike in gun sales, driven by concerns that criminals would take advantage of relaxed police enforcement and that people would become violent if forcibly quarantined.
Firearm sales again surged in the fall following months of protests, some of which ended in riots, calls for disbanding police, and fears that a Joe Biden presidency would result in tighter gun restrictions.
The FBI also processed 39.7 million firearm background checks in 2020 — the most by far of any year since the agency began keeping track in 1998. The previous record was 14.9 million checks in 2016. In Michigan, the FBI processed a record 1.07 million background checks in 2020, more than doubling the 492,000 checks in 2019. The previous record was set in 2016, when 579,000 checks were conducted.
If the lack of ammunition causes police departments to curb firearms training for too long, it could have dire consequences, said Robert Stevenson, director of the Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police.
"Firearms proficiency is a perishable skill; if you don't use it, you'll lose it," Stevenson said. "Most officers never have to fire their weapon — but when we do, it goes without saying that we don't want to miss what we're firing at."
Taylor Police Chief John Blair said his department doesn't have enough ammunition stockpiled to conduct the biannual handgun qualification training in May and September.
"There's not much we can do because that's not enough ammo to do the qualification, and we can't find it anywhere," he said. "We're struggling; we've been calling all over the country."
Blair said his department also has cut back on officers' department range time.
"We'll have open range a couple times a month where we'll open for four hours, and the officers can come in and shoot," he said. "But we had to cut back because we don't have the ammo. It's a huge concern.
"We just got brand new rifles, and we can't find the ammo to qualify officers with them and get those weapons on the street. We have some (of the new rifles deployed) already, but we're trying to expand that, and it's just not happening."
Timothy Bourgeois, director of the Michigan Commission on Law Enforcement Standards, or MCOLES, which sets training requirements for police departments statewide, said his agency isn't planning immediate changes.
"From our perspective, our main focus is recruit training, and we've been in close contact with the academies, and shared information about the availability of ammunition, so there are no plans to change any of our requirements," he said.
MCOLES requires all officers to go through an annual basic qualification course that consists of firing 30 rounds at targets set at various distances.
"Other than that, in-service training programs are designed by the individual departments," Bourgeois said.
Police departments have dealt with previous ammunition shortages, most recently in 2007, when U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan were firing a billion rounds each year and needed private companies to supplement the ammunition manufactured in the military's dedicated plant in Missouri.
But law enforcement officials say the current crunch is the worst in memory, prompting advocates to lobby for police to get first crack at ammunition, Stevenson said.
"I brought up the problem to the International Association of Chiefs of Police, and they made contact with (the U.S. Department of) Homeland Security, to see if we can somehow get an order that would give preference for police departments to get training ammo above the general public," he said.
"There was no luck there, so they were going to try other avenues. Something has to be done; you can't have police departments without ammunition."
Blair agreed police should get first dibs.
"Obviously, we don't think we're more important than other people, but we are tasked with protecting the public," he said. "People count on us, and when it comes to firearm proficiency, that's a skill that, boy, you don't want to dissipate."
Officials in some departments, including Detroit and Livonia, say they're not yet feeling the pinch, although Livonia Police Chief Curtis Caid said he's been told to plan ahead because the fallout from the shortage is expected to be felt for years.
"We typically order our ammo years in advance, so we haven't seen a problem yet this year," Caid said. "But when we started to order for 2022, we were told, 'you'd better place an order for 2023, too, because of the backlog.'"
Southfield Police Chief Elvin Barren said his department has enough ammunition for now but said he's planning for the possibility of a shortage.
"We've taken steps if need be to modify some of our training to ensure the training continues, and we have enough ammo in the event of a critical incident," he said.
"We have an 18-month plan based on when we placed our orders. Right now, we're fine. But let's say in August (manufacturers) aren't able to supply us, at that point, we'll go into some of our modifications."