Russian Ammo Ban Hurts Gun Owners, Not Vladimir Putin

Stopping the import of Russian ammo is just pretending to do something noble.


If you're ideologically committed to a course of action, like imposing restrictive policies, it's frustrating when the people you want to hurt refuse to cooperate. It's even more aggravating when some of the folks on your side lose faith and start doing the things you don't like. If you're clever and unwilling to compromise, you might then find a backdoor way to impose your will and, incidentally, prod your allies into line. By all appearance, that's what we're seeing with the Biden administration's ban on imports of ammunition from Russia, an important source for America's tight ammo market.

"New and pending permit applications for the permanent importation of firearms and ammunition manufactured or located in Russia will be subject to a policy of denial," the U.S. State Department announced last week. The start date is set for September 7, 2021, and sanctions are anticipated to be in place for a minimum of 12 months.

The sanctions are ostensibly in response to the poisoning last year by the Russian government of opposition leader Alexei Navalny. That was a truly horrendous crime committed by an authoritarian regime against one of the few figures who continues to rally dissidents against Vladimir Putin's regime, even from prison

"There's no need to apply sanctions on Russia," Navalny told The New York Times this week. "For now, all sanctions were tailored to avoid almost all significant participants in Putin's gangster gang. Do you want evidence? Name one real evildoer who suffered. The airplanes, the yachts, the billions in Western banks — everything is in its place," he added. Navalny recommends directly targeting Putin's allies.

As Navalny's comments suggest, restrictions on imports of firearms and ammunition are less likely to hurt well-connected Russian manufacturers, who will almost certainly find buyers elsewhere, than they are to hurt civilian consumers of those goods. Amid social fracture and loss of faith in institutions, American firearms sales are booming, the ranks of gun owners swelling, and ammunition manufacturers are struggling to meet demand. Cutting off the largest single source of imported ammunition to the United States can only reduce supply and drive ammunition prices higher.

"Availability of cheap Russian ammo acted as a pressure release valve for the prices of brass-cased ammo produced in more developed countries," Greg Ellifritz, a retired police officer and prominent firearms instructor, notes on his blog. "When the regular Russian ammo shooters can't get their fix, they will start buying the stuff that the rest of us shoot. That means the gradual drop in ammo prices will come to a quick halt. Ammo prices will rise across the board this year and next."

"Ammunition exports to the United States are only a small percentage of the GDP of the Russian Federation, but Russian origin ammo makes up a large part of the American ammunition supply," observes the National Rifle Association-Institute for Legislative Action. "American gun owners were already suffering from a market where demand was exceeding available supply. This new move by the Biden Administration will severely worsen the present supply problems."

Ammunition for some specialty calibers, such as 5.45x39mm, used in specifically Russian-sourced weapons, may essentially disappear.

So, why would the Biden administration impose trade sanctions that will certainly hurt Americans more than the supposed target government? Well, the administration has demonstrated that it's committed to tightening restrictions on firearms. But, as I've pointed out, gun owners strongly oppose restrictive proposals and are very unlikely to comply—and the government is in no position to compel submission. 

At least as important, though, is the fact that people on the political left and members of traditionally Democratic groups are defying traditional stereotypes and purchasing firearms for self-defense. Much more so than in many years, firearms ownership is an American experience and not one that belongs to a single faction.

"Gun sales reach record highs in 2020 especially among African Americans and first-time gun buyers," the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), an industry trade group, announced earlier this year. "Sales among women accounted for 40 percent of all sales, and purchases by African Americans increased by 56 percent compared to 2019."

In 2020, protests and riots broke out over concerns about how law enforcement misbehaves, especially towards minorities. One year later would be an awkward moment to send enforcers after gun owners whose ranks contain a growing proportion of minorities. But tightening the availability of ammunition and making it more expensive is one way to target gun owners and, perhaps, discourage gun purchases without engaging in politically perilous confrontations.

That said, here's a bit of not-so-bad news: Despite some apocalyptic talk about the impact of the sanctions on Russian ammunition imports, including speculation that Russian brands such as Barnaul, Tula, and Wolf represent anywhere from 20 percent to 40 percent of the market, the situation doesn't seem quite so dire. Imports of ammunition have soared by 225 percent over the past two years, and Russia is the largest source, accounting for 765 million "units" of ammunition out of 3.5 billion imported, according to Small Arms Analytics & Forecasting (Mexico and Italy are the next two largest sources). But that's in addition to about 8.7 billion domestically manufactured rounds of ammunition, as of NSSF figures from 2018. Even if I'm missing something (and I certainly am) Russian imported ammunition constitutes a smaller share of the market than many people fear.

But the sanctions on Russian-sourced ammunition will certainly further tighten inventories and hike prices in a market that already features demand outstripping supply. That harms American consumers far more than it hurts Russian manufacturers.

Now is a good time for shooters to make sure they're saving reloadable brass-cased ammunition. Yes, reloading components are also in short supply. But putting aside the cases and slowly acquiring components for reloading ammunition will help gun owners insulate themselves from future ammunition shortages, whether they're caused by supply and demand issues or by political intervention.

The control freaks who gravitate to government office are clever and uncompromising creatures. They're perfectly capable of finding ways to hurt people they don't like while pretending to do something noble. It's up to us to close off those backdoor attacks on our freedom.