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Wars squeeze police ammunition supplies across US

Shortage curtails officers' training

Sergeant James MacGillis fired an M4 rifle at Milwaukee range. The force there had to dip into ammunition reserves. Sergeant James MacGillis fired an M4 rifle at Milwaukee range. The force there had to dip into ammunition reserves. (Morry Gash/Associated Press)

RALEIGH, N.C. -- Troops training for and fighting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are firing more than 1 billion bullets a year, contributing to ammunition shortages hitting police departments nationwide and preventing some officers from training with the weapons they carry on patrol.

An Associated Press review of dozens of police and sheriff's departments found that many are struggling with delays of as long as a year for handgun and rifle ammunition. And the shortages are resulting in prices as much as double what departments were paying a year ago.

"There were warehouses full of it. Now, that isn't the case," said Al Aden, police chief in Pierre, S.D.

Departments in all parts of the country reported delays or reductions in training and, in at least one case, a proposal to use paint-ball guns in firing drills as a way to conserve ammunition.

Forgoing proper and repetitive weapons training comes with a price on the streets in diminished accuracy, quickness on the draw, and basic decision-making skills, police say.

"You are not going to be as sharp or as good, especially if an emergency situation comes up," said Sergeant James MacGillis, range master for the Milwaukee police. "The better-trained officer is the one that is less likely to use force."

The pinch is attributed to the skyrocketing demand for ammunition that followed the start of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and, ironically, police departments that have stepped up their own practice regimens following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The increasingly voracious demand for copper and lead overseas, especially in China, has also been a factor.

The military is in no danger of running out because it gets the overwhelming majority of its ammunition from a dedicated plant outside Kansas City. But police are at the mercy of commercial manufacturers.

None of the departments surveyed by the AP said they had pulled guns off the street, and many departments reported no problems buying ammunition. But others told the AP they face higher prices and monthslong delays.

In Oklahoma City, for example, officers cannot qualify with AR-15 rifles because the department does not have enough .223-caliber ammunition -- a round similar to that fired by the military's M-16 and M4 rifles. Last fall, an ammunition shortage forced the department to cancel qualification courses for several guns.

"We've got to teach the officers how to use the weapon, and they've got to be able to go to the range and qualify with the weapon and show proficiency," said Captain Steve McCool, department spokesman. "And you can't do that unless you have the rounds."

In Milwaukee, supplies of .40-caliber handgun bullets and .223-caliber rifle rounds have gotten so low the department has repeatedly dipped into its ammunition reserves. Some weapons training has been cut by 30 percent, and lessons on rifles have been altered to conserve bullets.

Unlike troops in an active war zone, patrol officers rarely fire their weapons in the line of duty. Even then, an officer in a firefight isn't likely to shoot more than a dozen rounds, said Lieutenant Gary Gudac, a police training officer in Asheville, N.C. That, he said, makes training with live ammunition for real-life situations, such as a vehicle stop, so essential.

"We spend a lot of money and time making sure the officers are able to shoot a moving target or shoot back into a vehicle," Gudac said. "Any time we have a deadly force encounter, one of the first things we pull is the officer's qualification records."

In Trenton, N.J., a lack of ammunition led the city to give up plans to convert its force to .45-caliber handguns. Last year, the sheriff's department in Bergen County, N.J., had to borrow 26,000 rounds of .40-caliber ammunition to complete twice-a-year training.

"Now we're planning at least a year and a half, even two years in advance," said Bergen County Detective David Macey, a firearms examiner.

In Phoenix, an order for .38-caliber rounds placed a year ago has yet to arrive, meaning no officer can qualify with a .38 Special revolver.

"We got creative in how we do in training," said Sergeant Bret Draughn, who supervises the department's ammunition purchases. "We had to cut out extra practice sessions. We cut back in certain areas so we don't have to cut out mandatory training."

In Wyoming, the state leaned on its ammunition supplier earlier this year so every state trooper could qualify on the standard-issue AR-15 rifle, said Captain Bill Morse. Rifle rounds scheduled to arrive in January did not show up until May, leading to a rush of troopers trying to qualify by the deadline.

In Indianapolis, Lieutenant Jeff Duhamell, police spokesman, said the department has enough ammunition, but is considering whether to use paint balls during a two-week training course.

"It's all based on the demands in Iraq," Duhamell said.

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