Proposed legislation to regulate online purchases of ammunition and high-capacity magazines is bringing new attention to a growing cyberspace ammo market that has operated with little government oversight.
Under federal law, firearms dealers must obtain a federal license and keep records of their transactions, but there’s virtually no federal regulation of ammunition suppliers or sales —though there was prior to 1986. Adults who currently want to stockpile large amounts of ammo—say 1,000 rounds of rifle fire or more— can buy it from dozens of web sites that specialize in bulk sales, often at low prices. Some sites also hawk magazines that fire up to 100 rounds without reloading, which critics argue have repeatedly been tied to deadly mass shootings and should be outlawed.
Some of the online sellers list no names of their owners, give only a post office box as their address and ship merchandise to customers using overnight couriers. Buyers can access a special search engine  to compare inventory and prices at more than 30 dealers.
Nima Samadi, who follows the $3 billion- a-year small arms industry for the market research firm IBISWorld, said online ammo sales have been gaining in popularity “due to convenience and lower prices consumers can get by buying in bulk online.”
But some gun control advocates in Congress hope public outrage over the recent Newtown, Conn., massacre, in which 20 elementary school children and six school employees were killed, will prompt a closer look at these businesses and the firepower they can unleash.
Earlier this month, U.S. Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, D-N.Y., re-filed a bill from last summer that would put an end to online and mail-order sales by requiring that ammo transactions take place “face to face.”
The bill also would license ammo dealers and require them to report purchases of 1,000 rounds or more, which McCarthy has said would bring ammunition sales “out of the shadows and into the light, where criminals can’t hide and responsible dealers can act as a line of defense against the planning and stockpiling of a potential mass killer.”
In a separate action, U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. on Jan. 8 said he would push for instant background checks to prevent ammo from being sold to felons, the mentally ill and others prohibited from buying firearms. Blumenthal, in a prepared statement, called ammo sales “the black hole in gun violence prevention.”
Also this month, McCarthy re-filed a bill—first introduced last summer in the wake of the Aurora, Colo., movie theater shootings—that would ban the manufacture and sale of magazines carrying more than 10 rounds. These magazines have been used in 15 mass shootings since 2000, according to the Violence Policy Center, a gun control advocacy group in Washington.
“These devices are used to kill as many people as possible in the shortest amount of time possible and we owe it to innocent Americans everywhere to keep them out of the hands of dangerous people,” McCarthy said in a statement.
In addition, a White House panel on gun violence led by Vice-President Biden is considering a range of proposals, including universal background checks for gun buyers and tougher penalties for carrying firearms near schools. Biden is expected to present recommendations this week. President Obama has already called for new laws to ban the sale of assault weapons and large-size magazines. An assault weapon ban in effect from 1994 to 2004 also banned new high-capacity magazines.
Attempts to ban or restrict ammo sales could prove to be among the most contentious measures under review, with nobody fully confident they can predict the outcome.
Tighter regulation “is certainly a possibility,” said Samadi, the arms industry analyst. But he noted that public opinion is fickle and said “it’s hard to accurately predict what will happen.”
The online sale of ammo “is a somewhat new and developing industry and there isn’t too much information out there,” he added.
The National Rifle Association strongly opposes ammunition regulation. The NRA argues that banning online ammo sales “would turn back the clock to the days when ammunition was only available in person at licensed stores, driving up prices and making less popular cartridges nearly unobtainable for millions of lawful gun owners.”
The National Shooting Sports Foundation, the industry trade group, would not comment. In the past, however, the group has said regulations “would not affect criminals or their ability to obtain ammunition.”
Retail interstate shipments of ammunition were made legal by the 1986 Firearm Owners’ Protection Act. The law allowed ammunition to be shipped to individuals through the mail and eliminated existing record-keeping requirements.
The NRA notes that officials of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives had concluded by the 1980s that licensing ammo dealers for nearly two decades provided “no substantial law enforcement value” in keeping bullets out of the wrong hands. Officials supported loosening regulation at that time. ATF spokesman Mike Campbell said in an interview that the agency no longer comments on pending legislation.
Marc Gallagher, a co-owner of ammoseek.com, the search engine that helps buyers find the best prices, agrees. He said it “appears that the lawmakers proposing such laws are merely attempting to capitalize on horrible tragedies to further their agenda and disdain for the Second Amendment.”
Such legislation “would do nothing to prevent criminals and crazy people from doing horrible things with guns,” Gallagher wrote in an email. “It would only prevent honest and law-abiding citizens from being able to freely purchase ammunition online,”
Gun control forces have thus far made limited political headway against that argument—and concerns that an online ban would infringe on private business. A 2009 California law that required all handgun ammo sales to be face-to-face was struck down by the courts, though supporters of the law are trying to reinstate it this year. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo also said this month that he favors a ban on online ammo shipments. While a few other states and some localities have restricted shipments of ammo or large-capacity magazines to residents, efforts at federal regulation have stalled.
That was the case last July when U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) and McCarthy introduced S. 3458  and H.R. 6241 , called the “Stop Online Ammunition Sales Act” on the heels of the Aurora movie theater shootings in which 12 people died and dozens more were wounded. Police found an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle magazine capable of firing 100 rounds at the scene. Authorities said at the time that the shooter, James Holmes, 24, bought four guns at local gun stores and more than 6,000 rounds of ammo online. One of the firms authorities tied to these sales is bulkammo.com , according to media reports.
The company’s lawyer, Oliver Adams, of Knoxville, Tenn., did not respond to requests for comment from the Center for Public Integrity. In the past, he has said that the company was “actively assisting in the investigation.”
The firm maintains a St. Louis post office box and takes orders by phone or email 24 hours a day, with a promise to ship merchandise promptly. Federally licensed firearms dealers must have a “premises address,” where transactions take place and inventories and records can be inspected by federal agents.
Bulkammo.com says on its website that it was set up to provide “serious shooters and training professionals with a reliable, economically priced source for bulk ammunition.”
The website doesn’t name the proprietors, except to say an employee named “Steven,” a former Marine, is a member of a staff that is “experienced and well-prepared to become your private armorer.” The firm passes muster on Angie’s List and has many favorable comments from satisfied customers on gun enthusiast websites and blogs.
“We shoot a lot of rounds (just like you) and we understand the frustrations and inconveniences of finding good suppliers who consistently have what is needed at good prices,” according to the website.
The company requires buyers to certify, among other things, that they are at least 21 years old, have never been convicted of a misdemeanor domestic violence charge or other crime and have “not been adjudicated as a mental defective” or “committed to any mental institution.” (Under federal law, people over 18 years of age can purchase rifle ammunition, 21 years old for handgun ammo .)
Other firms list a wide range of ammo for sale, though several say they are having a tough time filling rising demand, presumably from customers concerned that Congress might impose new restrictions in light of the Newtown slayings. Calls and emails to several of the online dealers were not returned.
The price for .223 bullets, the size fired by the semiautomatic rifle used in the Newtown shootings, can be bought for as little as $400 for 1,000-rounds. High-capacity magazines start at about $28, though they can cost much more depending on the manufacturer and the number of rounds they hold. Some sellers throw in free shipping and offer other discounts and promotions.
Although the online dealers don’t appear to have their own lobbying organization in Washington, some have been contributing to an NRA fund called the National Endowment for the Protection of the Second Amendment .
MidwayUSA , a Missouri company, began a program in 1992 that asks customers to “round up” the total of each order to the nearest dollar or higher. Other dealers signed on and together have funneled some $9.5 million to the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action, a lobbying arm, according to the company’s website. MidwayUSA did not respond to requests for comment.
In December, MidwayUSA announced that contributions topped $1 million for 2012, the most since the round-up program started. That drew a note of thanks from NRA official Chris Cox, according to the company’s website.
“With the reelection of President Obama, America can bank on more attempts to diminish our freedom and constant legal challenges to the Second Amendment,” said Cox. “This significant support is coming at a time of great need.”