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Billions of bullets: Cheap and unregulated

According to Wired magazine, 10 billion bullets are manufactured in the United States every year.

As Congress and the White House try to figure out gun control legislation, there's some support for limiting high-capacity magazines. That, in turn, has turned at least part of the debate about guns to a debate about bullets.

Joanna Pearlstein is a senior editor at Wired magazine and her latest piece looks at the business of bullets.

"There's about 10 billion bullets manufactured in the United States every year," said Pearlstein.

Federal regulations mostly restrict buying bullets based on who you are, said Pearlstein. For example,there are limits and restrictions for those are who are not in the country legally, those who are dishonorably discharged from the military, those who have certain felony convictions or for those under the age of 18.

"That said," she continued, "there's not a lot of background checks that are being done. So the onus is on you as the purchaser to basically be honest when you go into a store and buy ammunition."

Comedian Chris Rock once famously stated in a stand-up routine that instead of gun control, "all bullets should cost $5,000."

Pearlstein said you can really see why a bullet tax might be a good idea. "As cigarette taxes have increased over the years, consumption of cigarettes has declined; the tobacco industry has been up in arms about this for years," she said. "It stands to reason that if you can buy a box of 50 bullets for $20, maybe if that box cost $40 or $80 or $10,000, maybe we'd be buying fewer of them."

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.
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Before spouting off, you should fact check how many home invasions, car jackings and robberies are stopped each year by law abiding gun owners without "tactical training" and what business is it of yours how much anyone wants to target practice. It's not against the law. Lastly, my religion is also my business. You should mind you own.

Kai, This is one of the most irresponsible pieces I have yet heard on NPR. For example, exclaiming “wow” at the number of rounds produced in the US (incorrectly called “bullets” by Ms. Pearlstein, who should know better if she were objectively researching the article) was a pathetic attempt on your part to twist a simple fact to make it sound ominous. Could it be that the US Government buys a lot of ammunition? You and your guest claim that ammunition is “cheap,” but cheap compared to what? I am guessing that neither of you go to the range to practice your marksmanship skills or you would not find ammunition “cheap.” And it is absurd to draw a parallel between taxing ammunition purchases and taxing cigarettes to reduce consumption - how does reducing ammunition sales reduce crime, Kai? After all, criminals do not practice their shooting skills, responsible gun owners do. Bottom line: it is entirely without fact or justification to claim that regulating ammunition would in any way reduce violent crime. This is not journalism, it is anti-gun propaganda. I expect better from Marketplace.

Kai, you are a gentleman and scholar, and I have truly admired and enjoyed your work over the years, so riddle me this: Department of Homeland Security recently purchased 450 million rounds of hollow point ammunition. The purchase orders for this acquisition are easily verified. This is NOT the kind of ammo used to target practice. How do you think Homeland Security intends to use this much ammo? How about a story on this if we are talking "bullets"? Thank you.

This story was inane an inaccurate; bullets are not cheap for the the millions of Americans who use them for sport and target practice; which is how almost all ammunition is used. Ms. Pearlstein's assertion that at $20 for 50 9mm is not expensive demonstrates her bias that Americans don't really need ammunition and the shooting sports are not legitimate pastimes. A recreational pistol shooter might go through 100 rounds at the range once or twice a week. I'm sure you can do the math. Also much ammunition is taxed; there is sales tax and Pittman-Robertson tax which goes for wildlife management. Finally comparing ammunition to cigarettes is both misguided and unfair unless one completely disregards the fact that overwelmly ammunition is used in pursuits which harm no one. Perhaps I might stop telling my friends that NPR presents a balanced approach.

It is unfortunate to see such a poorly researched story make it on the air. I expect better quality from NPR. The "journalist" interviewed obviously did very little research on her info graphic and makes numerous errors missing the cost of most of the ammunition she reviews, talking about stopping power and then not displaying it. I was particularly disappointed by her attempt to confuse correlation and causation in the tax example for smoking. While I agree that we have a problem with violence in this country, the solution is not to publish erroneous data by reporters too lazy to fact check. We need to address this with actual verifiable facts, not fear mongering.

By taxing ammunition, you'd be creating yet another huge market for organized crime, to add to cigarette and drug smuggling in their profit portfolio. There's one simple, fair and effective method of combating violent crime: Arresting, trying, and convicting violent criminals. Demand drives markets, you of all people ought to know that.

A gun without bullets is a paperweight (which, of course, is what the Chris Rock routine is about). A bullet without a gun is ammunition for a sling shot.

Neither is of much use without the other. So whatever controls you want to implement need only address one or the other. Creating a bureaucracy to focus on both is an inefficient waste of resources. While not a perfect analogy, you don't need to address cigarette smoking by regulating matches.

Also, to the extent responsible gun ownership includes the ability to use it properly, you want gun owners to practice shooting. Shooting 100 bullets at a paper target is not unlike a golfer whacking away at a bucket of 100 balls at a practice tee. In that context, a box of 50 bullets really isn't that many.

As a golfer and a shooting enthusiastic, you are spot on. I am not sure aware if Kai realizes that 50 years ago, many high schools had shooting clubs and shooting ranges on campus. One generation passing down accountability and responsibility to the next. Video games can't do this. Oh, BTW there was never a problem withe programs.

Ima Freeman

taxes are not the answer. there is a large amount of tools to reload spent hulls. some are easier than others.

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