The headlines – like "Homeland Security Buys Enough Ammo for a Seven-Year War Against the American People" – seemed to confirm some conservatives' worst fears about the Obama administration's attitude towards the second amendment of the US constitution: that the push for background checks and against assault weapons was really just an elaborate scheme to disarm Americans and install some sort of dictatorship.
Add in a freshman congressman with Tea Party ties willing to openly suggest a plot by the administration to achieve gun control though the creation of an ammunition shortage and a conservative New Jersey congressman with a Tea Party problem willing to placate his constituents by demanding "answers", and you almost have the newest Obama administration gun scandal.
Except that none of it holds water.
In March, Alliant Techsystems (also known as ATK), one of America's biggest defense contractors, announced a contract with the Department of Homeland Security, Immigration and Customs Enforcement to provide .40-caliber hollow-point ammunition (used across the government for training purposes, because it breaks upon impact and thus doesn't ricochet). The contract, known as an Indefinite Delivery, Indefinite Quantity contract, is designed to allow the government flexibility for procurement over time – or to avoid writing multiple contracts as needs change or supply dwindles, since the process is laborious and time-consuming. In the case of this ATK .40-caliber contract, it allows the Department of Homeland Security to purchase up to 450m rounds over up to five years, at its discretion.
Why would the Department of Homeland Security need 450m rounds, let alone for the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) alone?
To begin with, DHS houses a number of agencies with armed personnel, including the Coast Guard, Customs and Border Protection, the Transportation Security Administration, the US Secret Service and the Federal Protective Service (which provides security at all federal buildings around the country), in addition to ICE. It also houses the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center, which "serves as an inter-agency law enforcement training organization for 91 federal agencies" and has four US sites and one foreign training facility for agents of all those agencies.
The FLETC hosts and does on-site training for nearly any state, local, tribal or campus security force. In fiscal year 2012 alone, 70,000 people were trained by the agency.
But ICE, in particular, is home to the National Firearms Tactical Training Unit, which also provides armory services (that is, guns and ammunition) to the Federal Protective Service, Customs and Border Protection and Federal Air Marshalls – more than 60,000 personnel all told. And contracting data shows that in 2012 alone, the division bought $11.3m-worth of just .40-caliber ammunition off just one similar contract with Federal Cartridge Company – a wholly-owned subsidiary of ATK. In addition, in 2007, ATK signed a five-year contract with DHS worth up to $90m for ammunition for ICE and the US Coast Guard.
Besides those purchases, Glenn Beck's the Blaze, which trumpeted the potential conspiracy in its headline, noted that that large ammunition purchases are not unusual for the department – which signed a contract in 2009 with Winchester for 200m rounds of .40-caliber hollow points. And with law enforcement agencies around the country finding it harder to source handgun ammunition like the .40-caliber bullets in the DHS/ICE contract because of increased demand from consumers – which is itself a result of scare-mongering by conservatives concerned that the Obama government is getting ready to take away their guns and ammunition – it only makes sense for large law enforcement consumers to try to lock in their supply, even if signing a new contract for each purchase were a realistic option.
Plus, when the same conservatives who love their guns are hitting Obama for cutting back on deportations even as ICE is actually ramping up prosecutions (which likely requires more training and weapons for agents), something's got to give.
So, will private citizens find higher prices or short supply the next time they go to stock up on .40-caliber ammunition? Possibly. But that's the law of the free market: when demand goes up and supply stays more or less the same, prices go up.
There's no logic behind wanting the borders patrolled more militantly and bemoaning the supposed dissolution of the free enterprise system under Obama – while simultaneously finding conspiracies behind the ultimate end results of both those positions. But at this point, there's no point in asking for logic when it comes to conspiracy notions about the Obama administration.
• Neither DHS nor ATK responded to multiple requests for comment. This article was produced in association with The Guardian.
["A Ski Mask As A Disguise Holds Out A Large Automatic Rifle Bullet." on Shutterstock]