DALE CITY, Va. -- The Great Ammunition Conspiracy Theory of 2013 holds that the United States government -- and in particular the many-tentacled and inscrutable Department of Homeland Security -- is stockpiling a tremendous quantity of weapons and ammunition in preparation for armed conflict against "the people."
According to a recent survey by Fairleigh Dickinson University, 44 per cent of Republicans -- and 18 per cent of Democrats -- sign on to the belief that "armed revolt might be necessary." These are the insurgents against whom Homeland Security presumably would be securing the homeland.
Homeland Security refutes the Great Ammunition Conspiracy Theory, arguing that it needs to procure a surfeit of slugs -- 750 million bullets, to be precise, over the next five fiscal years -- for constabulary training purposes. And even the very National Rifle Association itself has said that fear of Civil War II is overblown.
"As most gun owners will agree, skepticism of government is healthy," professed the NRA in Congressional testimony in April. "But today, there are more than enough actual threats to the Second Amendment to keep gun owners busy."
Despite this temporary lapse of insanity by the most powerful lobbying force in the country, 27 congressmen and senators (at last count) are pressing forward with a bill that would prevent the Obama administration from buying ammunition in greater quantities than were purchased during the Bush years. Meanwhile, at the monthly gun show at Post 1503 of the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Dale City, Va., an hour south of Washington, slugs are so rare and pricey, you'd think they were selling silver bullets.
On this morning that I visit the show, David Hazlett, 42, is laying out boxes of handgun and rifle bullets and reporting that a brick of Winchester-brand .22-calibre ammunition that used to go for $14 now was being sold for $70, if he can score any from his wholesalers at all.
"When was it 14 dollars?" I ask him.
"Before the Sandy Hook shooting," he replies.
"There's a shortage of ammunition because the government is buying too much," Hazlett says. "I don't know that for a fact, but that's my supposition. There is some amount of discomfort about all this ammunition being purchased by all of these agencies. They have enough to wage like a 20-year war, so that sounds excessive."
"Do you think there will be an armed conflict between the government and 'the people?' " I ask him.
"That's the million-dollar question," David Hazlett says.
Another vendor at the show is John Mitchell, 78, who spent exactly half of his life on the police force in the city of Arlington without ever having to fire his service weapon in the line of duty. Conversely, he tells me that among his ancestors were men who fought and died at the Alamo in the cause of Texas independence, against the Lakota with General Custer at the Little Big Horn, and along the Shenandoah with Stonewall Jackson in Civil War I.
"What I hate to see is people having to come here and spend that kind of money," Mitchell says. "They're all afraid of what's in the White House. The only time this happened before was when Clinton was elected, but this is worse.
"When Clinton was president, nine-millimetre was about nine or 10 dollars a box and everybody thought that was outrageous. Now it's 26!
"They were shooting BILLIONS of rounds in Iraq and Afghanistan and now that's stopping, so what's the reason for it? Where is it all going? I don't know whether they're trying to keep it out of the hands of the people or what, but in California, I hear the shelf life of a box of nine-mill is about five minutes."
A table sponsored by a group called the Virginia Citizens Defence League offers hats and bumper stickers bearing the league's motto: GUNS SAVE LIVES.
"A lot of people think government can't be tyrannical, but they're wrong," a member named Richard Kroh says, adding that he does not speak on behalf of the VCDL.
"Do you think there will be an armed conflict between the government and 'the people?' " I ask him
"I wouldn't be surprised," Kroh responds. "They're stockpiling weapons and ammunition in CASE there's an uprising so they can defend themselves. The same thing happened in the Revolution -- the British marched on Lexington to seize the patriots' gunpowder and weapons."
"Do you think there will be an armed conflict between the government and 'the people?' " I ask a woman named Ellen Downey at the VCDL table.
"No, not really," says Downey, who used to be a sharpshooter on the NRA Pistol Team. "I think they're doing it to raise the price and make it so people can't buy it."
While the patriots keep their powder dry, the Ammunition Management for More Obtainability (AMMO) Act is making its way through the legislative process, having picked up the co-sponsorship of two senators and twenty-four members of Congress, all of them Republicans, and all of them men.
"Regardless of the reason that people think the government is hoarding ammunition, it's wasteful," one of the bill's adherents, Rep. Blake Farenthold of Texas, tells me in an interview. "You've got Homeland Security telling us they need to buy 750 million rounds in the next five years.
"What they're going to do with that much ammo, I can't figure it out."
Meanwhile, back at VFW Post 1503, hunters, marksmen and subscribers to the Great Ammunition Conspiracy Theory have one thing in common: The rising cost of bullets is driving them ballistic.
"Prices are going up, up, up," John Mitchell is saying. "We're all hoping it goes down, down, down so we can get more, more, more. What's the point of having a firearm if you don't have anything to shoot?"
Allen Abel is a Brooklyn-born Canadian journalist based in Washington, D.C.