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Saturday, Mar 23 2013 06:00 PM

Ammo shortage frustrates local sportsmen

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    By Felix Adamo / The Californian

    Just in at Bear Mountain Sports: 55 cases of dove and target load for shotguns. Ammunition is becoming increasingly hard for sportsmen to find in Bakersfield.

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    By Felix Adamo / The Californian

    With a pallet of 55 cases of shotgun shells just in, Gene Thome, owner of Bear Mountain Sports, takes a call from a distributor in Louisiana and makes a $65,000 order of additional ammunition. Banjo is at right.

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BY JOHN COX Californian staff writer jcox@bakersfield.com

Frank Buoni would be a very popular man right now if only he were willing to part with some of his shotgun ammunition and reloading supplies.

Friends of the Bakersfield skeet shooter, half-desperate amid a nationwide run on ammo, have begged Buoni to sell them some of the 30,000 shotgun shell primers and 60 pounds of gunpowder he has amassed since a similar but less severe shortage several years ago.

They all get the same answer: nothing doing.

"I could really make a big profit at what I have," said the father and ammunition supplier to two competitive shooters. "But I won't do it. No."

This is what it has come to. Gun shops are rationing supplies -- if they can get any at all. Local hunters worry they'll have to sit out Kern County's popular dove season starting Sept. 1. At the same time, gougers are doubling and tripling their money.

Even the Kern County Sheriff's Office is a tad concerned that it may have to scale back on training ammunition if the shortage doesn't let up soon.

"I think some of the training may have to be altered, but that really isn't on the horizon yet," Rangemaster Sgt. Sean Pratt said, adding that the department has enough training and duty ammo to supply its 1,100 shooting personnel through November.

The Bakersfield Police Department did not respond to requests for comment on how it is coping with the ammo deficit.

PLENTY OF THEORIES

Obvious and not-so-obvious explanations have surfaced as to what's driving the shortage of ammunition for rifles, shotguns and handguns -- as well as certain firearms themselves.

Although news outlets reported a spike in gun sales after President Obama's reelection in November, local gun sellers say the latest surge in sales dates back to about mid-December, when a 20-year-old man fatally shot 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. The massacre prompted gun control legislation and an ongoing debate over Second Amendment rights.

Meanwhile, local and national firearm enthusiasts have cast a wary eye on reports that the federal Department of Homeland Security has contracted for up to 1.2 billion rounds of ammunition for possible delivery over the next five years.

"That's enough ammunition to supply an Iraqi war ... for 20-plus years," said Gene Thome, owner of Bear Mountain Sports in Bakersfield.

A Homeland Security spokeswoman insisted in a Wednesday email to The Californian that the department's ammunition contracts are routine.

"With more than 100,000 armed law enforcement personnel in (the department), significant quantities of ammunition are used to support law enforcement operations, quarterly qualifications, and training, to include advanced firearms training exercises," spokeswoman Marsha Catron wrote.

According to the department, Homeland Security has purchased a relatively steady volume of ammunition since 2009. In 2012 it reported buying 93,386,926 rounds of ammunition for its varies agencies, excluding the U.S. Coast Guard, which relies on U.S. Department of Defense purchasing contracts. The department has more than 100,000 officers and agents.

Makers of ammunition have found themselves in the hot seat, too.

Nebraska-based Hornady Manufacturing Co. felt compelled to post a statement on its website in an attempt to dispel what it called "rumors and conjecture" behind empty store shelves, long backorders and "exaggerated price increases" at Internet auction sites.

The company rejected speculation that the government has forced it to stop production, or that all of its sales are to the government.

"We are producing as much as we can; much more than last year, which was a lot more than the year before, etc.," the statement reads. "No one wants to ship more during this time than we do."

RETAILER WOES

Tell that to the store manager at Dick's Sporting Goods on Rosedale Highway. Every week customers start lining up about two hours before opening time so they can pick up shotgun shells, 22 Long Rifle cartridges and 9 millimeter bullets.

Everything's gone half an hour after the doors open.

"We just can't keep it in stock," store manager John Spires said.

Thome, at Bear Mountain Sports on Di Miller Drive, said he has been out of gunpowder since January, even as he gets regular shipments of shotgun ammunition because of longstanding business relationships with ammo makers around the country.

On Tuesday he received a half pallet of shotgun shells from Louisiana -- 1,325 pounds worth -- but decided not to spread word about it.

"If I post it on Facebook," he said, "this stuff will be gone in a day."

You might think now would be a good time to be in the guns and ammo business. But it's not, said Bakersfield Gun Club's manager of sales and fabrication, Joel Engel.

Although the Rosedale Highway store sells its own brand of assault rifles, it can't get handguns or ammunition.

"I haven't had a shipment of handguns for three months, four months," he said.

A CRIMP ON HUNTING

The shortage is frustrating not only for the customers who call every day looking for supply updates, but for him as well.

"I enjoy recreation -- going out and shooting with my wife and friends," he said. "We can't even go do that anymore."

Cecil Zimmerman knows the feeling. An avid hunter who also uses his shooting skills to keep varmints off his family ranch, he has been worrying lately about whether he has enough ammunition for the elk hunting trip he has scheduled for October in Utah.

Recently the Bakersfield resident spotted five boxes of cartridges for his .300 Winchester Magnum selling at the normal price of $57 a box. Against his better judgment, he said, he splurged and bought all five.

All of this makes him a bit jealous of Buoni, the skeet shooter and father who's sitting on loads of ammunition.

"That guy was way ahead of the game on that stuff," Zimmerman said wistfully.

"He saw this coming, which I didn't."

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