NEW ORLEANS - Bullet-makers are working around the clock, seven days a week, and still can't keep up with the nation's demand for ammunition.
Shooting ranges, gun dealers and bullet manufacturers say they have never seen such shortages. Bullets, especially for handguns, have been scarce for months because gun enthusiasts are stocking up on ammo, in part because they fear President Barack Obama and the Democratic-controlled Congress will pass antigun legislation - even though nothing specific has been proposed and the president last month signed a law allowing people to carry loaded guns in national parks.
Gun sales spiked when it became clear Obama would be elected a year ago and purchases continued to rise in his first few months of office. The FBI's National Instant Criminal Background Check System reported that 6.1 million background checks for gun sales were issued from January to May, an increase of 25.6 percent from the same period the year before.
"That is going to cause an upswing in ammunition sales," said Larry Keane, senior vice president of the National Shooting Sports Foundation, a trade association representing about 5,000 members. "Without bullets a gun is just a paper weight."
The shortage for sportsmen is different than the scarcity of ammo for some police forces earlier this year, a dearth fueled by an increase in ammo use by the military in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"We are working overtime and still can't keep up with the demand," said Al Russo, spokesman for North Carolina-based Remington Arms Company, which makes bullets for rifles, handguns and shotguns. "We've had to add a fourth shift and go 24-7. It's a phenomenon that I have not seen before in my 30 years in the business."
Americans usually buy about 7 billion rounds of ammunition a year, according to the National Rifle Association. In the past year, that figure has jumped to about 9 billion rounds, said NRA spokeswoman Vickie Cieplak.
Jason Gregory, who manages Gretna Gun Works just outside of New Orleans, has been building his personal supply of ammunition for months. His goal is to have at least 1,000 rounds for each of his 25 weapons.
"I call it the Obama effect," said Gregory, 37, of Terrytown, La. "It always happens when the Democrats get in office. It happened with Clinton and Obama is even stronger for gun control. Ammunition will be the first step, so I'm stocking up while I can."
So far, the new administration nor Congress has not been markedly antigun. Obama has said he respects Second Amendment rights, but favors "common sense" on gun laws. Still, worries about what could happen persist.
Demand has been so heavy at some Walmarts, a limit was imposed on the amount of ammo customers can buy. The cutoff varies according to caliber and store location, but sometimes as little as one box - or 50 bullets - is allowed.
At Barnwood Arms in Ripon, Calif., sales manager Dallas Jett said some of the shortages have leveled off, but 45-caliber rounds are still hard to find.
"We've been in business for 32 years and I've been here for 10 and we've never seen anything like it," Jett said. "Coming out of Christmas everything started to dry up and it was that way all through the spring and summer.
Nationwide, distributors are scrambling to fill orders from retailers.
"We used to be able to order 50 or 60 cases and get them in three or four days easy, it was never an issue," said Vic Grechniw of Florida Ammo Traders, a distributor in Tampa, Fla. "Now you are really lucky if you can get one case a month. It just isn't there because the demand is way up."
A case contains 500 or 1,000 bullets.
At Jefferson Gun Outlet and Range in Metairie just west of New Orleans, owner Mike Mayer is worried individuals are going to start buying by the case.
"If someone wants to shoot on the weekend you have to worry about having the ammunition for them. And I know some people aren't buying to use it at the range, they're taking it home and hoarding it."
With demand, prices have also risen.
"Used to be gold, but now lead is the most expensive metal," said Donald Richards, 37, who was stocking up at the Jefferson store. "And worth every penny."