Last month, conservative blogger Matt Drudge tweeted that he predicts 2013 will be the "year of Alex Jones," the conspiracy theorist extraordinaire who most recently made headlines by suggesting that the Boston Marathon bombings were a "false flag" attack perpetrated by the FBI.
Drudge has a point. As the leading purveyor of New World Order conspiracies, Jones has a growing Internet following of casual fearmongers who see nefarious government intrigue in the most mundane bureaucratic chores (e.g. water fluoridation), and believe it's only a matter of time before we are all living in FEMA concentration camps.
To the average person, this looks like lunacy. But is it all just conspiratorial blather? Or is there any truth to what Alex Jones and his fanboys are selling?
Mostly, the ideas are just nuts. But the most recent conspiracy theory du jour—that the government is stockpiling ammunition for an eventual showdown with the American people—has been surprisingly resilient.
The theory first began circulating last year, when the Infowars crowd noticed that the Department of Homeland Security had put in a procurement request for 1.6 billion rounds of ammunition—a surprisingly large number of bullets, even by a normal person's estimation.
The Infowars folks aren't taking government ammo hoarding lightly.
DHS has tried to quell the rumor-mongering, assuring Congress that the bullets are primarily used for training purposes. A DHS spokesman told Republican House investigators last month that the department wasn't actually planning on buying all 1.6 billion bullets, and that the ammo would be spread over 70,000 agents over five years. In a letter to Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) last November, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said that DHS plans to buy around $37 million worth of ammo in 2013, which, based on past year’s expenses, would amount to around 100 million rounds. She also pointed out that the department has actually marginally decreased its ammunitions purchases over the last few years.
As bullets fly off the shelves, Alex Jones has warned his audience that the ammo shortage is a sign that the federal government is gearing up for widespread civic unrest.
Still, that does seem like a lot of ammo for a non-defense agency. In 2012, DHS purchased more than 103 million rounds of ammo, an average of about 1,500 bullets per DHS officer. According to Napolitano, DHS had over 263 million rounds of ammunition in its inventory at the end of 2012.
Coupled with a recent nationwide ammunitions shortage, the apparent government stockpiling has sent the conspiracy theory mill into overdrive. As bullets fly off the shelves, Alex Jones has warned his audience that the ammo shortage is a sign that the federal government is gearing up for widespread civic unrest, and engaging in an "arms race against the American people."
That as-yet unfounded fear is underscored by an interesting nationwide trend: A recent poll found that a full 29 percent of Americans—including 44 percent of Republicans and 27 percent of independents—believe a revolution to protect their liberties might be necessary in the next few years.
If more than a quarter of the population, and nearly half of Republicans, believes that an armed confrontation with the government is imminent—and they are buying up weapons and ammo to prepare for the struggle—then it would only be logical for the federal government, and the Department of Homeland Security in particular, to prepare for this contingency.
But is the US government and the hundreds of billions of dollars of yearly military spending really trying to incite an "arms race" with citizens? Until US citizens start equipping themselves with Predator drones and aircraft carriers, the government will always have the upper hand when it comes to the use of force.
With that in mind, the idea that Homeland Security is trying to buy up all the bullets so civilians can't have any is silly. Who cares how much ammo anti-government citizens buy when they're facing an opposition with the largest budgets on Earth? So while it is true that there are currently off-and-on ammo shortages being reported around the country, Homeland Security purchasing plans (for the future, mind you) aren't to blame.
"Shortages have happened before but this seems to be a little more pronounced," said Mike Bazinet, a spokesperson for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, an industry lobbying group. "Ammunition manufacturers are working their facilities 24/7 to meet the demand, they are loading them up on trucks and putting them on the shelves, but they are moving very quickly once they get to retailers."
Bazinet dismissed the conspiracy theories, and said that the ammo shortage is primarily attributable to the recent increase in gun sales, a trend documented by the rise in FBI background checks for gun purchases.
“We've obviously seen the reports that the shortage is due to government stockpiling, but they are not accurate,” he said. "Government purchases are not the cause for shortages of retail product.”
But some members of Congress aren't buying it. To that end, Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) and Rep. Frank Lucas (R-OK) recently introduced the AMMO Act, which would restrict non-defense agencies from purchasing ammo above the monthly average bought from 2000-2009, before the Obama administration took office. The law would also require the federal government to conduct a report auditing its ammunition purchase and their effect on the retail ammunition supply.
Is this going to be suburban America in five years? Well, no, but all of those bullets have to be used somewhere, right? Via the Defense Department
Inhofe, for one, has suggested that the government stockpiling is a backdoor effort by Democrats to implement gun control measures that couldn't pass the Senate.
"President Obama has been adamant about curbing law-abiding Americans’ access and opportunities to exercise their Second Amendment rights," he said in a press release. "One way the Obama Administration is able to do this is by limiting what’s available in the market with federal agencies purchasing unnecessary stockpiles of ammunition."
In a recent interview, Lucas was a little more measured. He told me that he wasn't sure why the government needed so much ammunition, but that the perceived government stockpiling was sparking "fear" among average gun owners.
"There is a great suspicion in the countryside," Lucas said. "Part of it is that the actions of this administration have caused so much fear among people that ammunition might not be available in the future."
As a result, he added, “people are stockpiling in a way that they never have before."
More than a quarter of the population, and nearly half of Republicans, believes that an armed confrontation with the government is imminent.
So far, there is no hard evidence to link the government’s ammo purchases to the rise in conspiratorial right-wing dissent. And obviously, it seems like a stretch to say that the government is in an “arms race” to deprive Americans of bullets.
But as New World Order conspiracy theories increasingly permeate civic life, right-wing conspiracy theorists appear to be taking concrete steps to prepare for what they see as an inevitable showdown, even if those steps often amount to showing off personal arsenals on the web.
What is for certain is that government conspiracy theories are gaining traction. We're already seeing the results of this on a small scale with the sovereign citizen movement, and the Southern Poverty Law Center has recently noted an "explosive growth" of radical antigovernment groups, just to name a couple.
So regardless of whether or not the government is stockpiling ammunition to keep people from revolting, a sizeable portion of the nation thinks that's the case. And now that members of Congress appear to be on board, the sticky conspiracy theory is causing real trouble on Capitol Hill. But rest assured that for the majority of people that "believe" armed confrontation is imminent, actually rounding up a militia to carry it out is a much larger stretch.