NAPLES — Four hours before opening her new indoor gun range near Naples, Pippa Steinhart fired up her iPad to scan the surveillance cameras, curious to see if she’d find anyone waiting outside.
At 6 a.m., she spotted a customer near the front door, sitting in a beach chair. It only got busier from there, and she even opened a bit earlier than planned Friday to handle the line that stretched outside.
At first, the rush wasn’t from customers wanting to try out the range. Most shooters came in search of supplies, especially ammunition. It’s a scene that has played out at gun counters everywhere because of a nationwide shortage of ammo, prompted in part by the fear of new gun control laws and horrific massacres over the past few years. Recent reports of Homeland Security buying up 1.6 billion rounds of ammo have only fueled the buying frenzy.
“Everybody is here for guns and ammo,” Steinhart said an hour-and-a-half after opening her gun range last week. “No one is shooting.”
But the shooters soon came, with loud booms filling the air and echoing through the range and into the store. By noon Friday, shooters filled nearly every lane.
Meanwhile, customers young and old continued to line up for guns, bullets and other supplies, including state-of-the-art eyewear. One spent $1,500 on a gun and ammo.
“By the end of a week, for sure, it will be gone,” Steinhart said of the fast-disappearing ammo in the store.
On a lunch break, Guy Wozniak, 33, of North Naples, stopped in Friday to see if his type of ammo was in stock. He bought six boxes for his .308 and .223 rifles.
“If you go on the auction sites, it’s three to four times the cost,” he complained.
When he has more time, he hopes to try out the new lead-free handgun range, in an industrial zone near Naples Municipal Airport. It’s the only one of its kind in the Naples area.
Wozniak might have bought more ammo on his first visit, but was limited to three boxes of each kind because of the nationwide shortage.
“My staff seems to think we are going to be sold out quickly. So we are going to limit it so we can provide ammo to the most people and satisfy the most people and not let people come in and hoard. It seems un-American to me, but we are going to have to do it,” Steinhart said.
The business, Naples Gun Range & Emporium, at 4651 Mercantile Ave., has eight shooting lanes. There’s a shooting simulator up front, playing out 400 scenarios, and a classroom for teaching all levels of shooters. A few tried the simulator Friday, but most of the action happened at the counter.
For months, Steinhart has gotten calls asking when she was going to open. Many of those callers were in search of ammo or guns, while others wanted to be among the first shooters on the first day.
After stopping by countless times to check on the progress of the range, Larry Cece, a retired policeman in his early 70s who lives a few miles away, was surprised to learn it finally opened when he drove by Friday. He took a quick tour with his wife, but didn’t have his gun with him. He planned to return within a few days and signed up for an annual membership.
“I think it’s well-needed. They are few and far between and it’s a nice facility,” he said of the range. “It’s one of the nicest ones I’ve seen.”
Steinhart expects to have plenty of lead-free, or frangible, ammo to supply the shooters at her “green” range.
“We have a supplier that has granted us what should be a sufficient supply,” she said. “Time will tell.”
Over the past few months, other retailers in Southwest Florida have seen the same rush for ammunition.
Josh Hackman, manager of Fowler Firearms & Gun Range off Fowler Street in Fort Myers, said at first it was guns that were in short supply, then the ammo.
“My store is very empty,” he said. “On average, I usually have anywhere from 400 to 500 guns and a couple hundred rifles and I probably have a quarter of that inventory.”
While the supply of guns is slowly improving, the supply of ammo isn’t, he said.
“Our target ammunition is only for the range now. We can’t sell it for out-the-door now,” said Hackman, adding that there’s a growing fear of running out for shooters at the range.
Now, he said, every third phone call the range gets is from someone looking to buy ammunition.
The store is selling self-defense ammunition, but it too is rationing supplies, selling a box or two at a time. On Friday afternoon, there was a shortage of .38 special ammo, but more arrived later in the day.
“We try to buy ammo five days a week, while our distributors are open,” Hackman said.
Where there once was 15,000 to 20,000 rounds of some popular kinds of ammo, there now is less than 2,000 on the shelves, he said.
“Ammunition prices have risen,” Hackman said. “We can only swallow the cost for so long. Some of the stuff has increased 25 percent. Eventually it will be passed on to consumers.”
At Bass Pro Shops at the Gulf Coast Town Center in San Carlos Park, supplies of guns and ammunition have been so short it’s “scary” and in Punta Gorda, the Cecil M. Webb public gun range, one of the largest in the state, isn’t bustling like it used to on weekends because shooters can’t get enough ammunition or don’t want to waste it, he said.
“Every day they talk more about gun control and that continues to further demand,” Hackman said. “People say, ‘I better get it while I can.’ It’s like water for a hurricane.”
Rob Marcum, a Naples resident and an owner of Lotus Gunworks LLC, who plans to open an indoor range of his own in North Naples, off Vanderbilt Beach Road, said he saw the shortage coming six or seven months ago and stocked up on ammunition then. He has another gun range in Louisville, Ky., and one in Stuart on Florida’s east coast. Both ranges have retail stores and there are daily limits on ammunition sales.
“A lot of people in security have no ammo,” Marcum said. “So they can’t do their training. That’s happening in Florida — in Naples.”
His two-story gun range in North Naples will be his largest. Spanning 26,000 square feet, it will be more than four times the size of the Naples Gun Range & Emporium. It’s now expected to open in November, near Airport-Pulling Road next to Agave Southwestern Grill. Construction should start within a month, Marcum said.
At a recent trade show in Las Vegas, Marcum ordered $240,000 of machinery to remanufacture his own ammo to ensure he will have plenty of it.
“What really has happened is that with all these unfortunate shootings around the country, there has just been a feeding frenzy on anything related to guns,” he said. “With that said, there have be a lot of single people ordering a thousand rounds at a time, and it has just depleted inventories.
“People are just scared of the government and they are scared of the regulations,” he added. “People are stockpiling.”