Bullet sales are rising and so are death totals in mass shootings. Can they be stopped?

Gun Rights

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America’s mass shootings are as much about the free trade of bullets as they are about gun sales. Take, for instance, the Uvalde, Texas shooting that killed 19 school children and their two teachers. 

The gunman in the 2022 assault armed himself with over 1,000 rounds of ammunition, after spending about $5,000 on guns, bullets and gear. He fired 142 rounds inside the school, starting in a 4th-grade classroom. 

He had enough bullets to do a lot more damage. 

Time and time again, in the wake of a mass shooting it’s revealed that the shooter was carrying enough weaponry to kill everyone inside a school, movie theater, grocery store or even a full-sized mall. It’s not hard for the killers to build a significant arsenal of assault rifles, handguns, high-capacity magazines – and bullets. Lots of bullets.

Each year billions of bullets are sold in the U.S., making bullet sales a booming business. A recent trade report estimated the global small caliber ammunition market size is expected to reach $11.30 billion by 2030. And gun sales have ramped up, hitting buying highs even during pandemic-related ammunition shortages. Even then, the U.S. government and munitions manufacturers have reported increased sales and higher prices by resellers as buyers stockpiled bullets and guns.

After a mass shooting, public attention inevitably turns to a debate on the control of guns. But with shooters so often stocked up on ammunition in order to kill as many as possible, many are left to wonder: What about the bullets?

“Ammunition plays a large role in mass shootings, and ammunition has been historically less regulated than firearms themselves,” said New Jersey Attorney General Matthew Platkin, a Democrat who oversees a newly erected office designed to sue gun and ammunition manufacturers when their products cause harm

WHERE DO SHOOTERS GET THEIR WEAPONS? More mass shooters are using semi-automatic rifles – often bought legally

As easy as ‘ordering a pizza’: Bullets are not hard to buy online or at a shop

It’s remarkably easy for anyone to obtain large quantities of ammunition, said Ari Freilich, state policy director at the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, led by former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who survived a 2011 mass shooting.

In most places in the country, people can go online and have hundreds or thousands of bullets delivered to their door, “as if ordering a pizza,” he said.

California’s ammunition regulations are some of the most comprehensive, Freilich said, noting the requirement that a background check be completed at the point of sale and that ammunition can’t be ordered online and shipped to your door; it can be picked up from an authorized dealer that must perform the background check.

“Restricting large-capacity magazines is one of the single most effective things we could do to reduce the shooter’s capacity to turn shootings into mass murders,” Freilich said.

Proponents say lower capacities on magazines would force an attacker to stop to reload a weapon sooner and more often, providing more opportunity for others to either subdue the shooter or escape. Freilich noted that when Giffords was shot, bystanders used an opportune moment when the shooter was reloading his weapon to subdue him and end the shooting. 

It’s a restriction favored by most of the American public. A June 2022 Gallup poll found 55% support banning the sale and possession of magazines with capacities higher than 10 rounds, 44% oppose it and 1% had no opinion. 

The Giffords group and other gun regulation advocates also propose that ammunition sellers be required to maintain records of their sales, and make the information available to law enforcement, as New Jersey will soon enact. 

Data collection and reporting of large sales to state police, along with other measures such as behavioral threat assessments, will help law enforcement to identify bad actors, Platkin, the New Jersey attorney general, said. Law-abiding gun owners who purchase ammunition in bulk won’t have anything to worry about, Platkin said.

A spokesperson for the NRA said that flagging bulk purchases of ammunition as suspicious is misguided and based on misconceptions about firearms and ammunition.

“Gun owners who shoot often will regularly purchase thousands of rounds of ammunition per transaction. Purchases of this nature happen daily. Some law-abiding gun owners may use hundreds of rounds of ammunition simply practicing at the range,” the NRA’s Amy Hunter said. “Competitive shooters will easily go through a thousand rounds, or more, of ammunition in a single day. And, just like any consumer, gun owners often stock up when they see a good buy.”

“Nothing that we have done has taken away or intends to take away people’s lawful right to possess firearms and possess legal ammunition. What we’re trying to do is keep folks safe,” Platkin said.

Lack of regulation adds to problem, advocates say

Some states and federal law have requirements for purchasing or possessing ammunition, such as age requirements or a prohibition for people with certain criminal convictions.

But in many places, anyone can go online or walk into a store and buy ammunition unchecked, as federal law doesn’t require sellers to perform background checks to determine whether purchasers are banned from having ammunition.

Government leaders calling for reform say bullet regulation –  including through the recording of sales, licensing of dealers or background checks – is necessary in the ongoing battle to curb mass shootings. 

“Gun violence is an epidemic, and if we’re going to respond to it, there’s not one measure that’s going to cure it, the same way there’s not one effort that was going to cure COVID-19. You have to treat it like the public health crisis that it is and attack it from many angles,” Platkin said.

A handful of states have some ammunition regulations, including California’s point-of-sale background check requirement and New York’s record-keeping requirements.

Some states ban types of dangerous ammunition, such as the eight states that ban ammunition that explodes on contact, according to the Giffords group. Federally, only certain armor-piercing bullets are banned except for law enforcement.

Opponents of regulation like the National Rifle Association, which also largely opposes firearm regulations, argue that ammunition is protected under the 2nd Amendment as an essential component of bearable arms.

While the Supreme Court hasn’t directly weighed in on ammunition regulations, experts say that courts would interpret the 2nd Amendment to include protections for people to have ammunition, and Freilich noted regulations being proposed on ammunition are “really pretty modest.”

Sandy Hook to Uvalde: Congress has proposed gun control laws. Only one has passed.

What to know: The Supreme Court made a monumental ruling on gun rights

Bullet laws face challenges

Recent legislation and voter measures have sought to fill gaps in some states. In Oregon, voters narrowly passed a ballot measure this November to enact new gun control law, including a provision that would prohibit high-capacity magazines.

Oregon’s Measure 114, which was approved by 50.6% of voters – 49.4% opposed – was put on hold by a judge Dec. 15 while pro-gun rights groups challenge its constitutionality in court.

Proponents of the provision banning magazines that hold more than 10 rounds, with some exceptions, argue it could be a key factor in limiting the amount of death and injury in future mass shooting attempts. 

Harney County, Oregon Judge Robert Raschio called it “speculation” that the measure would promote public safety in his decision to halt the law from going into effect.

“Banning magazines over 10 rounds is no more likely to reduce criminal abuse of guns then banning high horsepower engines is likely to reduce criminal abuse of automobiles,” the lawsuit brought by a gun rights group, sheriff and gun store owner in Oregon said. “To the contrary, the only thing the ban contained in 114 ensures is that a criminal unlawfully carrying a firearm with a magazine over 10 rounds will have a potentially devastating advantage over his law-abiding victim.” 

State-level gun control: 5 states that changed their laws after mass shootings

Colorado has had a similar law on the books since 2013 in the wake of the Aurora movie theater massacre that killed 12 people and injured dozens more. That law bans the sale of magazines with a capacity for over 15 rounds, and it has faced legal challenges. Still, loopholes in that law made it possible for a man who killed 10 in a Colorado super market last year to have legally obtained high-capacity magazines on him.

Eleven other states and Washington, D.C., have banned large-capacity magazines: California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington. Four of the 13 states with laws only enacted them in 2022, according to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

Where do mass shooters get their bullets?

  • Aurora, Colorado movie theater shooting: July 20, 2012: A gunman opened fire July 20, 2012, killing a dozen people. He came with an AR-15 equipped with a 100-round magazine drum, a semiautomatic shotgun and more than 200 rounds of assault rifle ammo, and 15 rounds of .40 caliber bullets. Leading up to that day, the gunman had ordered over 6,000 rounds of ammunition online, along with other materials he used to create explosives and booby trap his apartment.  
  • Las Vegas music festival shooting: The man who killed 58 and injured hundreds on Oct. 1, 2017,  fired over 1,000 rounds in 10 minutes and more than 4,000 unspent rounds were found in the hotel room from which he fired. He had an additional 50 pounds of explosives and 1,600 rounds in his car. One former ammunition dealer who sold the gunman about 600 illegally manufactured tracer and armor-piercing rounds was sentenced to 13 months in prison in 2020.
  • Shooting at Walmart in El Paso, Texas: The man who killed 23 people on Aug. 3, 2019, in the racist attack bought an AK-47-style rifle and 1,000 rounds of hollow-point ammunition, which expands in bodies upon impact to cause more damage, online 45 days before the shooting.
  • Uvalde school shooting: The gunman who killed 19 kids and their two teachers on May 21, 2022, legally bought two guns from a licensed dealer in the days before the attack. He had recently purchased 375 rounds of 5.56 ammunition for the rifles and carried seven 30-round magazines with him. He had also recently received an online order of 1,740 hollow-point bullets, which he purchased just days after his 18th birthday. 

In many cases, because there aren’t requirements in many states or federally for ammunition sellers to keep records of the sales – unlike with gun sales – the origin of mass amounts of ammunition can’t be easily traced.

Holding the ammunition industry accountable

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Highland Park shooting victims sue gun manufacturer Smith & Wesson

Highland Park parade shooting victims filed several lawsuits against multiple parties they linked to the massacre, including a gun manufacturer.

Patrick Colson-Price, Associated Press

In large part, gun and ammunition manufacturers and sellers are shielded from liability due to the 2005 Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act.

It gives broad immunity to the industry in the wake of “the criminal or unlawful misuse” of a firearm. It makes some exceptions for when they knowingly break a law, such as selling a firearm to a felon.

PLCAA has been used to dismiss outright claims made against the firearms industry in the wake of gun violence. Sandy and Lonny Phillips, whose daughter Jessica Ghawi was killed in the Aurora, Colorado shooting, filed a suit against retailers that sold ammunition to the gunman, but it was dismissed under PLCAA and the couple was ordered to pay the retailer’s legal costs

Lucky Gunner, a Tennessee-based online ammunition retailer, has faced two lawsuits tied to mass shootings. The most recent suit stemmed from the 2018 shooting at a Santa Fe, Texas high school by a 17-year-old. Texas’ Supreme Court ruled the case could proceed in February despite Lucky Gunner’s attempts to have it dismissed.

The Biden administration and Democratic lawmakers have called for a repeal of PLCAA, and some blue states, including New York, Delaware and New Jersey, have introduced so-called “public nuisance” laws in the last couple years giving states the power to sue gun and ammunition industry members over gun violence.

New Jersey’s Statewide Affirmative Firearms Enforcement Office was created this year to do just that.

Platkin said anyone selling firearms or ammunition in a way that violates state law, or not taking enough care to prevent sales to people who harm residents, can be liable.

“The goal here is the same goal we have for any other industry: If you’re harming our residents in ways that violate our laws, you’ll be held accountable. I don’t think that’s a particularly radical idea,” Platkin said.

Contributing: The Associated Press

‘Hold the industry accountable’: NJ creates office to sue gun manufacturers

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