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.
There are a lot of guns around these parts, too. The barren desert surroundings are a 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 back road 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 know from personal experience. I’ve been popping into the local stores to replenish my .357 and .22 ammo supply for about once a week ever since I moved out to Victorville a month ago. And every time, I have been greeted with empty shelves and apologetic salesmen.
“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 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 home ownership.
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.
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