Troops training for and fighting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are firing more than 1 billion bullets a year, contributing to ammunition shortages hitting police departments nationwide and preventing some officers from training with the weapons they carry on patrol.
A review of dozens of police and sheriff’s departments found that many are struggling with delays of as long as a year for both handgun and rifle ammunition. And the shortages are resulting in prices as much as double what departments were paying just a year ago.
“There were warehouses full of it. Now, that isn’t the case,” said Al Aden, police chief in Pierre, S.D.
Departments in all parts of the country reported delays or reductions in training and, in at least one case, a proposal to use paint-ball guns in firing drills as a way to conserve real ammo.
Forgoing proper, repetitive weapons training comes with a price on the streets, police say, in diminished accuracy, quickness on the draw and basic decision-making skills.
“You are not going to be as sharp or as good, especially if an emergency situation comes up,” said Sgt. James MacGillis, range master for the Milwaukee, Wis., police. “The better-trained officer is the one that is less likely to use force.”
The pinch is blamed on a skyrocketing demand for ammunition that followed the start of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, driven by the training needs of a military at war, and, ironically, police departments raising their own practice regimens following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The increasingly voracious demand for copper and lead overseas, especially in China, has also been a factor.
The military is in no danger of running out because it gets the overwhelming majority of its ammunition from a dedicated plant outside Kansas City. But police are at the mercy of commercial manufacturers.
In Oklahoma City, officers can’t qualify with AR-15 rifles because the department doesn’t have enough .223-caliber ammunition. Last fall, an ammunition shortage forced the department to cancel qualification courses for several guns.
In Phoenix, an order for .38-caliber rounds placed a year ago has yet to arrive, meaning no officer can currently qualify with a .38 Special revolver.
“We got creative in how we do training,” said Sgt. Bret Draughn, who supervises the department’s ammunition purchases. “We had to cut out extra practice sessions. We cut back in certain areas so we don’t have to cut out mandatory training.”
In Indianapolis, police spokesman Lt. Jeff Duhamell said the department has enough ammunition for now, but is considering using paint balls during a two-week training course, during which recruits fire normally fire about 1,000 rounds each.
Even though rounds used by the military are not exactly the same as those sold to police, they are made from the same metals and often using the same equipment.