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There's No Ammo on the Shelves

A trip to the L.A. exurb and desert city of Victorville tells you all you need to know about why it's so hard to buy ammunition these days.

| Mon May 11, 2009 7:09 PM EDT

This story first appeared on AlterNet.

VICTORVILLE, Calif.—Ever since it became clear that Barack Obama would be our next president, there's been an unprecedented run on guns 'n ammo in America. Partly this is fueled by fears, some justified some not, that Obama will outlaw a broad range of assault weapons; partly it's fueled by socioeconomic factors, racism and right-wing hate.

Nowhere is this phenomenon more evident than in Victorville, a desert exurb of Los Angeles that boomed faster with the subprime craze than just about any city in the country and fell harder when it all collapsed. Today, guns and ammo are in short supply here in Victorville. But there is an abundance of despair and paranoia.

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There are a lot of guns around these parts, too. The barren desert surroundings are perfect setting for gun enthusiasts of all stripes, and it feels like most everyone here owns a weapon or two. And why not? You can drive 15 minutes beyond city limits, turn off onto a backroad and start unloading to heart's content. That is, if you are able to get your hands on some ammunition.

In Victorville, every single gun store is out of all types of ammo, all the time.

"I went through 11,000 of 9mm rounds in two days. That's an awful lot for a little shop like this. I would never ever stock that much," an owner of a  gun shop tucked away in a corner of a strip mall told me. "All the people that make ammunition are making more than they have in any other year, but they are still running out."

Excessive target practice did not even come close to explaining the insatiable demand for ammo. Even the local Wal-Mart, the pioneer in demand-driven distribution, can't keep up, selling out as soon a new shipment comes in.

Rumor on the street has it that Wal-Mart has sold more ammo year-to-date than any other year in its history. And while Wal-Mart's media relations department would not confirm or deny that information, citing proprietary concerns, all one has to do is visit their two stores in the area.

Aside from a couple of boxes of buckshot, shelves in the guns-and-ammo department stand perpetually empty—a weird sight in a store otherwise overflowing with goods. According to a salesperson at their Victorville location, ammo that arrives overnight will be picked clean long before lunch hour rolls around. The only sure way to buy is to call as soon as the store opens at 9 a.m. and put what you want on hold. That is, if a shipment comes in that day at all.

Charles Drew, owner of a gun store in Victorville, told the press that even people that don't own guns are hoarding ammunition "just in case." It is a trend recorded nationwide. 

The Outdoor Wire, a news service for the outdoor industry, has named Obama its "Gun Salesman of the Year." Mandatory FBI background checks for firearms sales have jumped by 50 percent in recent months, while ammunition manufacturers have seen record sales. Olin Corp., maker of Winchester ammunition, upped its first-quarter sales this year from $110 million to $133 million, giving it a much-appreciated 20 percent boost in profits.

Ammunition has been so scarce lately that some police departments have been forced to scale back on target practice, fearing that they won't have any bullets left for real police work.

And the thing to remember is that bullets aren't cheap. A box of 25 9mm rounds sells for about $25. More specialized ammo easily sells for $2 a bullet or more. But in these difficult times, cost does not appear to be an issue, even in the flat-broke city of Victorville.

Victorville is set on a flat stretch of the Mojave Desert among Joshua trees and tumbleweeds 100 miles east of Los Angeles. Fertilized by land speculation and the riskiest of loans, blocks and blocks of beefy McMansions started sprouting here in the last decade, baiting low-income families with the glorious dream of homeownership.

Priced just right, Victorville was a testament to the accessibility of the American Dream for all, regardless of wealth. And in 2007, it became America's second-fastest growing exurb, doubling its population to just over 100,000 in six short years.

There was no local industry to support such growth, and despite the two-hour average commute, each way, people flocked here from all over Southern California, eventually making Victorville more ethnically diverse than Los Angeles.

But the egalitarian dream didn't last. Prices have now dropped to pre-2000 levels. Whole neighborhoods of beefy homes, some of them half-built, now stand abandoned, eerily blending in with the barren desert landscape.

The unemployment rate in Victorville doubled in the past year, spiking way above the national average to between 12.5 and 18.5 percent (the national and state averages are 8.5 and 11.2 percent, respectively).

Violent crime is on the rise, too. Victorville saw a 7 percent jump in 2008, while some surrounding areas clocked as much as 13 percent more homicides, rapes, robberies, assaults and motor vehicle theft.

There are two sides to Victorville, the old and the new. Before its stint as a dirt-cheap suburban paradise, Victorville was a tiny God-fearing community populated by white conservatives living an isolated frontier lifestyle with heavy military overtones.

One of the local World War II-era bases had shut down more than a decade ago, but a Marine Corps base remains operational and is still one of the biggest employers in the area. Until the housing boom flooded the area with urban homeowners, 1 out of every 6 adults here was a veteran.

The influx of new—and mainly nonwhite—homeowners has been a cause of racial tensions here for more than a decade.

"The chemistry out here is perfect for more and more racism," said Tom Metzger, the infamous leader of the white supremacist hate group White Aryan Resistance who lives in Southern California, about the Inland Empire back in 2005. "You've got all these nonwhites moving here from Orange County and Los Angeles trying to flee the crime perpetrated on them by their own kind in their ghettos, and when they come out here, they're basically shoving forced integration down the throats of the whites who have traditional claim to this area, and that is provoking a negative racist reaction among whites, as it damn well should. It's great!"

What has been simmering conflict may soon be bubbling over the edge. There is almost a sense of inevitability of a spike in hate crimes.

"In the past month, there was only one reported hate crime. But you have to wonder how many go unreported. I think a lot, " a local crime beat reporter told me. "Just go to our comments section and read what people are saying. There is definitely a perfect storm building."

In October 2008, two teenagers belonging to a local hate group shot a black man in a liquor store parking lot. Schools have been dealing with an uptick in race-based conflicts and shooting threats. Earlier this month, one of the cars of a Jewish family was trashed inside and out, its engine destroyed and swastikas painted on its doors and hood.

As I'm writing this, news is coming out that police arrested a group of six local skinheads from Hammerskin Nation for attempted murder, witness intimidation, conspiracy to commit murder and assault with a deadly weapon.

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, Hammerskin Nation has been stepping up recruitment lately, as has every other known extremist group across the nation.

On April 15, about 200 people, mostly white, showed up at Victorville's Tea Party. Some were not hesitant to vow that they'll take violent action if "Osama's" socialist policies continued unabated.

To the protestors, the economic crisis had exposed what their government had become: a big, meddling bureaucracy that had little regard for personal liberty. Socialism was a'coming to the USA, and it was hell-bent on exploiting honest, hardworking people like themselves—whether its being forced to bail out delinquent homeowners or having your jobs given to illegal immigrants.

While President Obama was talking about raising taxes, redistributing wealth and carelessly spending hundreds of billions of dollars on his banker buddies, their boys were coming back home from Afghanistan and Iraq thankless and jobless. Much of their anger was aimed at new residents: Hispanics, Asians and blacks.

Nowhere is this animosity more visible than on the local Internet forums. Here are just two of dozens of similar comments posted by readers on an article about Victorville's spike in crime rates by the Daily Press, a local daily:

married wrote:

Sheriff's can't pinpoint why there's an increase in crime? Geez even an idiot can tell you what the problem is – low-income housing, Juan and Shanana moving up here to get little Julio and Tyron away from the gangs, but not realizing they are the gang, and welfare money running out in the middle of the month. I can't wait to hear the remarks I'm gonna get on this comment. 5/2/2009 7:59:03 PM

sandynator wrote:

No surprise here, what do you expect with all the social engineering we had via Barney Frank and the dems, too many gangbangers got loans and moved on up to the high desert. Now we the citizen pay the price while the fat cats like Barney Frank, Nancy Pelosi and BO laugh themselves silly. 5/2/2009 9:59:36 PM

The day day after the nationwide Tea Party protests, channeling the spirit of Timothy McVeigh, the Department of Homeland Security released a perfectly timed report warning law enforcement agencies that America's shifting political landscape, the economic downturn and influx of returning vets all combined for a perfect storm likely to cause a swell in right-wing extremist organization activity.

The report cited evidence that extremist groups are stockpiling weapons and ammo in preparation for...something.

Republicans went on a partisan offensive slammed the report as an affront against our troops, but even a cursory look at Victorville shows how close to the bone the report really gets.

Yasha Levine is editor of eXiledOnline. He is currently stationed in Victorville, California, working on a book from the trenches of the American Dream.

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