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Toilet paper impossible to find? So is ammunition.

U.S. Customs and Border patrol seized 16 boxes of 7.62 mm ammunition, with each box containing 520 rounds (U.S. CBP/Released)

Ron Laramee, who shoots pistols competitively, stopped by Cabela’s in Scarborough on Sunday to pick up some 9 mm ammunition.

The store had none, which surprised the 73-year-old retiree from York.

“What, are they buying it to protect their toilet paper?” he said. “It just doesn’t pass the sanity check.”

From large retailers such as Kittery Trading Post to small operations such as Howell’s Gun Shop in Gray and Windsor’s Hussey General Store, clerks said this week that the most popular handgun bullets are out of stock.

“That’s very unusual,” said Mike Kane, president of the Scarborough Fish & Game Association for the past five years. “That ammo flew off the shelf. It’s probably more hoarding than anything. Instead of people buying one or two boxes, they’re buying 10 boxes.”

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Ammunition sellers, including a manufacturer based in Maine, say the surge in sales is tied to anxiety surrounding the coronavirus outbreak.

“Business has always been good, but what you see now, it’s crazy,” said Ethan Pepin, general manager of Maine Ammo Company in Sanford.

“There’s a virus and people keep talking it up. For whatever reason, this one seems to be getting into their bones and they’re panicking.”

Pepin said Maine Ammo supplies ammunition to the military and law enforcement, as well as to the general public. The manufacturing plant in Sanford has a small store adjacent to the factory. “I’ve never seen so many women come into my plant as I have now,” he said.

Emily Cooke of North Berwick stopped by Maine Ammo on Thursday morning to pick up ammunition for her husband, who owns a handgun and an AR-15 rifle. She said they normally buy online, but prices have skyrocketed lately, “and we’ve been discussing how we want to support local businesses anyway.”

Cooke walked away empty-handed, however, and joined a waiting list that she was told could last from 14 to 30 days.

The run on ammunition leaves Cooke perplexed and a bit unsettled. She said she had higher priority items on her shopping list – “I want some fruits and vegetables” – than toilet paper and bullets.

“When people are in a mode of fear,” she said, “that’s always a bit of a scary situation.”

Frank Shippee of the Fort Ridge Trading Post in Shapleigh said he sold his entire inventory of ammunition last week worth more than a thousand dollars. Shippee is 85 and has owned the business for 40 years. He sells new and used guns and makes repairs. It’s a one-man operation that he is considering shutting down when his license expires in July.

“Ammo is in short supply right now,” Shippee said. “People get panicky.”

Through January and February, Federal Bureau of Investigation background checks for gun purchases were up 30 percent nationwide compared with the same two months of 2019. Maine saw a smaller, though still significant rise, of 11 percent in January (from 6,682 to 7,400) and 17 percent in February (6,794 to 7,966).

The National Shooting Sports Federation, based in Newtown, Connecticut, serves as the trade association for the firearms industry. NSSF spokesman Mark Oliva said retailers are reporting a lot of first-time gun owners over the past two weeks.

“I think anytime there’s a period of uncertainty,” Oliva said, “it has been shown that Americans want to provide for their own security.”

Calls seeking information about recent firearm sales were not returned from either Kittery Trading Post or Cabela’s in Scarborough and its corporate parent, Bass Pro Shops in Missouri.

Background checks do not represent the number of firearms sold, but they do indicate interest in a permit or transfer. Mainers who are at least 21 do not need a permit to buy a handgun, but a background check is required.

David Trahan, executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, said normally such a check takes 25 to 30 seconds. It’s a service SAM provides for its 8,000 members statewide. On Thursday, however, Trahan said background checks were taking more than an hour.

“So there must be a surge of firearm purchases,” he said. “We’ve seen an uptick in the amount of time it takes to process, which means there’s likely an increase in firearm sales.”

Pepin, of Maine Ammo in Sanford, said the business of selling ammunition and guns is one that is often driven by fear.

“And normally that fear is political,” Pepin said. “(Former President Barack) Obama and Hillary (Clinton) were the best sales people for our company, bar none.”

And even though it’s a presidential election year, the fear in recent weeks seems to have far more to do with just politics.

“In the last four weeks I sensed something was going wrong,” Pepin said. “When the virus came onto the scene you could tell. Everybody’s worried about their family.”

Most of Maine Ammo’s sales are online. And those sales are occurring twice a minute, Pepin said, a rate so frequent that he received an inquiry from the company employed by Maine Ammo to process credit cards, asking if anything was amiss.

“It’s normal to get sales, but it’s abnormal to get a sale every 30 seconds,” Pepin said. “I’ve never seen it like this in all my life. Ammunition is outselling toilet paper.”

Another ammunition website, Ammo.com, put out a release Monday saying that sales are soaring in response to coronavirus panic. Comparing the 22-day period from Feb. 23 to March 15 with sales recorded between Feb. 1-22, administrators of the site said they recorded a 309 percent increase in revenue across the nation.

Alex Horsman, marketing manager for Ammo.com, said Maine ranked 37th among all states by sales volume over that stretch, but that Maine’s sales rose 631 percent, with the top three sellers all being bullets used in rifles rather than handguns. He declined to provide specific sales and revenue numbers for Maine.

“We know certain things impact ammo sales, mostly political events or economic instability when people feel their rights may end up infringed, but this is our first experience with a virus leading to such a boost in sales,” Horseman wrote in response to an emailed query.

“But it makes sense. A lot of our customers like to be prepared. And for many of them, it’s not just face masks and Theraflu. It’s knowing that no matter what happens, they can keep themselves and their families safe.”

David Farmer, who served as campaign manager for the statewide background check referendum in 2016, pointed to statistics showing that access to a gun triples the risk of death by suicide and doubles the risk of death by homicide. Firearms are the second-leading cause of death for American children and teenagers, after vehicle crashes.

Farmer agrees that fear and uncertainty are driving sales.

“People are afraid and they are worried about new restrictions,” he said, noting how sales often would spike whenever former Obama spoke about gun control. Manufacturers of guns and ammunition “have long taken advantage of circumstances that enhance their sales, so it’s no surprise to me at all that when some of us are searching for toilet paper or milk or bread, that others are searching for ammunition for their AR-15. Personally, I’d rather have toilet paper.”

As much as business in bullets is booming, Pepin sounded displeased with what he views as unnecessary hoarding.

“What the hell is going on in the United States?” he said. “Excuse my language, but Americans are tougher than this. I mean, pull yourselves together.”

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© 2020 the Portland Press Herald