Mass Shootings, Mass Sales
In June 2012, James E. Holmes, the Colorado graduate student, ordered 1,500 rounds of Lake City ammunition from the website BulkAmmo.com, which had been offering discounts on boxes of the 5.56. He had them delivered to a FedEx shipping center near his home.
The next month, Mr. Holmes stormed into a Century 16 cinema theater in Aurora, wielding an AR-15-style rifle loaded with the ammunition and dressed in an “urban assault vest” sold by an ATK subsidiary. He killed 12 people and wounded 70 in what was the deadliest mass shooting to date with an AR-15-style gun, according to a database maintained by the Violence Project. The tally includes shootings in a public place in which four or more people, not including the attacker, were killed.
Later that year, another gunman armed with an AR-15-style rifle killed 26 pupils, teachers and staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. He did not use rounds from Lake City, but the tragedy drove a new push for gun reform — and a reflexive spike in ammunition sales.
In 2014, Lake City’s production reached a record high of nearly two billion rounds. Less than half went to the military, Army data shows. Many of the rest poured onto shelves at big-box retailers, helping drive a $300 million annual increase in sales for ATK, according to earnings statements. Black Friday at Walmart and other stores made preparations for the Thanksgiving holiday one of the busiest and most stressful times at the plant, according to two people familiar with its operations.
When ATK merged with the aerospace company Orbital the following year, ATK’s sporting division was spun off as Vista Outdoor. Led by Mr. DeYoung, Vista received a three-year exclusive contract to sell Lake City’s commercial products.
Firearms were a good business, Mr. DeYoung told investors, but as new customers were drawn to the market by first-person-shooter video games, like Call of Duty, ammunition was where the real money was.
“You go to the shooting range and watch people shoot,” he said, “and they are shooting boxes and boxes and boxes and cases and cases and cases of shells in the ranges.”
Lake City played an important role in those new sales, as demand for its products, once determined by the needs of war, increasingly followed the events driving the nation’s rancorous debate on guns.
Mr. DeYoung did not respond to requests for comment. Vista Outdoor issued a statement attributed to Federal Cartridge, one of its many brands, saying it was proud of its ammunition production. “We are committed to complying with all applicable laws, and strongly condemn any criminal misuse of our products,” the statement said.
In early 2015, the national gun debate brushed against Lake City for the first time as the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives moved to restrict civilian availability of one of the plant’s products, a variety of 5.56 rounds known as “green tips.”
The rounds had been adopted by U.S. forces for their ability to punch through steel helmets and light body armor at long distances, but in 2010 the Army had begun replacing them with a more lethal round that was not available to the general public.
The A.T.F. announced that it was considering limiting the availability of green tips under a law intended to protect law enforcement officers. It sparked a firestorm. The agency received over 80,000 public comments opposing the idea as well as harsh criticism from the gun industry and members of Congress who said it violated the Second Amendment.
The A.T.F. backed down, and, within a year, Lake City green tips were tied to the shooting of five police officers and a deputy sheriff.