Federal Ammunition Sales Regulation: A Proven Failure

Posted on July 26, 2012

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Federal Ammunition Sales Regulation: A Proven Failure

Recent calls for federal regulations and restrictions on ammunition sales ignore the failure of such laws in the past. They also ignore the impracticality of imposing and enforcing similar controls in today's huge ammunition market. The National Shooting Sports Foundation estimates that 10-12 billion rounds of ammunition are produced domestically each year, while billions more are imported.

The Gun Control Act of 1968 required federal licensing for all ammunition dealers, and required that a record be kept on all handgun ammunition sales by retailers—including the popular .22 rimfire cartridges. The requirements proved to be such a heavy burden on retailers that in 1982, Congress removed .22 caliber rimfire ammunition from the record-keeping requirement.

Even with that change, the value of ammunition sales licensing and record keeping was doubted by many, including the nation's top firearms law enforcement officials. In 1984, the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee concluded that ammunition dealer licensing "was not necessary to facilitate legitimate Federal law enforcement interests."1 In 1986, the director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms supported eliminating the record keeping requirement: "The Bureau and the [Treasury] Department have recognized that current recordkeeping requirements for ammunition have no substantial law enforcement value."2 As a result, the Firearms Owners Protection Act of 1986 repealed the ammunition restrictions, with little opposition despite heated debate over other provisions of the bill.

More recently, anti-gun politicians have called for bans or restrictions on online or mail order ammunition sales. But limiting the ability of law-abiding gun owners to purchase ammunition online or through catalogs will not prevent any criminal from purchasing ammunition from a local retailer. A box or case of ammunition is the same if it is bought from a local gun store, a big box retailer, or an online seller. And as with sales of other regulated products, online retailers take practical measures to verify the age of shoppers—usually by requiring a copy of the buyer's driver's license and requiring an adult signature for delivery of the package.

Finally, limiting the quantity of ammunition a gun owner may purchase online or by mail will only affect the law-abiding. Criminals typically fire only small quantities of ammunition during attacks. Leading criminologist Gary Kleck describes numerous studies showing that armed assaults usually involve either no shots or only a few shots fired, noting that "Even in a sample of gun attacks on armed police officers, where the incidents are more likely to be mutual combat gunfights with many shots fired, the suspects fired an average of only 3.7 times."3

In contrast, it is not at all unusual for top pistol, rifle and shotgun competitors to fire tens of thousands of rounds per year. Law-abiding competitive and recreational shooters regularly buy ammunition in bulk, saving money on the large quantities of ammunition they need to improve and maintain their skills.

Even in the international arena, the United States recognizes the fundamental problems inherent in regulating ammunition. As the top U.S. negotiator at U.N. Conference on the Arms Trade Treaty put it: "Ammunition is a fundamentally different commodity than everything else we have discussed … It is fungible, consumable, reloadable, and cannot be marked in any practical way that would permit it to be tracked or traced. Any practical proposal for ammunition would need to consider the significant burdens associated with licensing, authorizations, and recordkeeping for ammunition that is produced and transferred in the billions of rounds per year."4 That statement holds just as true for recently proposed domestic controls.

1. Federal Firearms Owners Protection Act, S. Rept. 98-583, Aug. 6, 1984.

2. Legislation To Modify the 1968 Gun Control Act, Hearing Report, Committee on the Judiciary, U.S. House of Representatives, October 38, 30, Nov. 8, 1985, and February 19 and 27, 1986. The BATF was an agency of the Treasury Department until 2003.

3. Gary Kleck, Targeting Guns 123 (1997).

3. UN arms trade treaty shouldn't regulate ammunition, The Hill, July 10, 2012 (http://thehill.com/blogs/global-affairs/un-treaties/236969-us-says-un-arms-trade-treaty-shouldnt-cover-ammunition)

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