Opinion: Columnists

Tinfoil hat brigade warns of federal bullet buys

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It seems to have begun with a March 12 PR news release by defense contractor ATK bragging to shareholders that the firm had snagged a big job selling pistol bullets to the feds -- 450 million rounds to the Department of Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

On July 18, the DHS Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Glynco, Ga., posted a 91-page solicitation for an estimated 754 million rounds of assorted small arms ammunition ranging from .380 pistol bullets to 12-gauge shotgun shells and various rifle calibers including .223 Remington 55 grain FMC (Full Metal Case).

For the bullet-challenged, the .223 Remington is one of the most common rifle cartridges in the United States, used in bolt action varmint rifles and semi-automatic rifles such as the AR-15, a favorite of elite tactical police in high-risk operations requiring "social work."

On August 7, the Social Security Administration called for bids at to manufacture 174,000 rounds of .357 Sig 125 grain bonded jacketed hollow point pistol ammunition for shipment to some 73 SSA locations coast to coast.

A week later, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration requested 46,000 rounds of jacketed .40-caliber hollow-point pistol ammo. A glitch caused the mistaken listing of the National Weather Service as the buyer, instead of the proper NOAA Fisheries Law Enforcement Office -- predictably producing forecasters' "hail of gunfire" jokes.

By that time, the arithmetic said that about half a billion rounds of deadly hollow points were floating around in federal agencies -- bullets that mushroom open and do maximum damage to the target but don't usually exit and hit somebody else. Such bullets were prohibited for international warfare under the Hague Convention of 1899, but today are commonly used by U.S law enforcement.

Headlines followed: "Who Does The Government Intend To Shoot?" by retired Major General Jerry Curry, now a business consultant and opera singer -- his CD offers two arias from Puccini's everybody-dies-in-Act-III screamer, Tosca.

As grim as Tosca, Curry asked of the SSA purchase, "Is the purpose to kill 174,000 of the nation's military and replace them with Department of Homeland Security special security forces, forces loyal to the Administration, not to the Constitution?"

Dozens of blogs came up with comparably remarkable conspiracy theories.

I asked Lesli Bales-Sherrod of the NOAA Office of Law Enforcement why her agency needed their 46,000 rounds. She replied by email that, "134 NOAA enforcement personnel are issued firearms. Agents and officers are required to have 200 rounds in his or her duty bag."

Also, twice-a-year firearm qualification and training requires another 500-600 rounds for each. In addition, firearms instructors with more than one pistol may need more rounds.

Has NOAA ever shot anybody? No, Bales-Sherrod wrote, but agents drew their weapons twice in the past five years (both incidents were in 2008).

I asked Alan Gottlieb, founder of the Second Amendment Foundation, whether he was concerned about feds mowing down the citizenry with all this ammunition. Not exactly, he told me. "My concern is that the government is ordering too much ammunition at a time. It's making the market tight, ammunition prices are going through the ceiling, and civilian buyers are being shut out. Washington needs better management of its buying schedule. But at least this crush creates jobs and helps the economy."

Unfortunately, not all of the speculation surrounding these bully buys contains so much common sense. A lot of it, as gun rights advocate Dave Workman put it on his blog, "suggests a very active imagination that includes black helicopters and tinfoil hats."

Examiner Columnist Ron Arnold is executive vice president of the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise.

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Ron Arnold

The Washington Examiner