(USA TODAY) NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Some people are calling it "the great ammunition shortage."
Gun shops and sporting-goods stores in Tennessee and around the country have been running short on ammo -- especially for handguns -- since late January, and say they don't see their stocks getting back to normal until summer.
Charles Mitchell of Lebanon, Tenn., is leaving next week for a big-game hunting trip to Africa, but he found it nearly impossible to buy cartridges for the gun he's taking with him.
"It's crazy right now," he said. "I ordered some ammunition online three months ago and had no trouble, but all of the online sites now are showing 'out of stock' on the rounds I need."
After looking at dealers all over Nashville, he finally found a box of .375-caliber cartridges but said he isn't sure it will be enough for his entire trip, during which he hopes to bag a lion.
He's not alone. Just about everyone who owns a gun is having trouble finding ammunition, and they're even waiting in line at stores like Walmart and Bass Pro Shops when trucks arrive with a possible new shipment.
The cause isn't the federal government buying up all of the ammunition to keep it out of the hands of ordinary citizens or arm foreign governments, as some pundits have suggested on talk radio, said Tom Shagnea, owner of Guns for America, a new- and used-weapons shop in Nashville.
"We're hearing a lot of this conspiracy stuff," he said. "But basically, it's just the fears of Americans, causing them to stock up on ammo. It started right after Christmas, and they are buying as much as they possibly can."
Just like when there's a run on anything, supplies get short, and that puts people into an even bigger buying frenzy, he said.
Dealers say the shortage -- which also applies to the guns themselves, not just ammo -- can be traced directly to the national debate over gun control in the aftermath of the Newtown, Conn., school shootings, although they say President Barack Obama's re-election had an effect, as well.
The shortages affect the small gun shops more than the big-box retailers, because the larger outlets have standing orders with gun and ammunition distributors and they get preference on shipments when supplies are low, said Hunter Proffitt, manager at Game Fair Ldt. in Nashville.
"We're a small shop," Proffitt said. "We're not set up like a corporate store. We have to sit here and evaluate what we have and need and place our orders one at a time. But over the past month or so, nothing that we ordered has been in stock. And the distributors don't know when anything will come in."
The big stores aren't immune, though. They get some supplies, but it's usually small amounts and in varying sizes, never enough to last more than a few hours -- or even minutes in some cases -- after it arrives, the retailers say.
"We're like everyone else," said Greg Cole, manager of the Bass Pro Shop at Opry Mills. "When we do get ammunition in, it goes out the same day we receive it. The extent of it began when the president was re-elected, and got worse after the Newtown shootings occurred.
"Then it escalated as the talk went on about banning modern shooting rifles, as we like to call them. That really spiked sales of the guns and the ammunition, and created the shortage."
The ammo shortage is hurting gun sales, too, said Bill Bernstein, owner of the Eastside Gun Shop in Nashville.
"Like most small dealers, we're trying to keep our ammunition for customers who buy our guns, because most people won't buy if they can't get the ammo, too," he said. "This is the worst shortage I've seen -- it's even worse than four years ago, when supplies ran low after Obama was first elected."
Prices are higher than ever, too, a product of the principle of supply and demand, said Game Fair's Proffitt. His shop this week had a few boxes of 50 rounds of .22 ammo for $7.95 a box; the normal price is about $2.50.
Business is tough for shooting ranges and the concealed-carry classes because their customers are having trouble finding ammunition as well, said Rob Corcoran, who runs the Academy of Self-Protection and operates a range in Joelton.
"Range shooting has dropped off mainly because we can't provide ammunition," he said. "Every bit we get we're holding back for our classes and the people who buy guns from us."
When the shortages will end is anybody's guess, dealers say.
"It's not going to turn around until the rhetoric from the government stops about banning certain weapons and changing the laws," Guns for America's Shagnea said. "Then the availability will increase because the hoarding will stop."