The Lake City Army Ammunition Plant, built during World War II, has long been operated for the federal government by private contractors. Over the past decade, according to a New York Times investigation, the site has produced increasingly more rounds for the commercial market as military demand has declined.
The Army says the trading business is intended to keep the factory in good working order so military production can ramp up quickly while reducing the cost of its ammunition. The current contractor, Olin Winchester, did not respond to questions from the Times.
More than a million pages of search warrants, police evidence records, ballistics reports, seizure records and court proceedings compiled by The Times provide a comprehensive account of how Lake City munitions, once intended for war, Sometimes they have fallen into the hands of criminals. Here are four takeaways.
Lake City is one of the largest manufacturers of commercial cartridges for AR-15 style rifles in the country.
By reviewing annual reports, earnings call transcripts and government documents, and interviewing more than 40 former employees and others with knowledge of Lake City operations, The Times was able to determine that the site, in Independence, Missouri, had manufactured hundreds of millions. of rounds for the commercial market every year since at least 2011.
For most of that period, its commercial operations outpaced its military businesses. By 2021, commercial production (which includes retail sales and purchases by law enforcement agencies and foreign governments) had exceeded military production by more than twice, according to a historical summary provided by the Army.
Just as those rifles have turned up in crimes, so have the plant’s ammunition.
The vast majority of Lake City bullets sold by retailers have gone to law-abiding citizens, including hunters, farmers and shooters. Some are attracted to them because they are made from the same materials and often the same specifications as military ones, while others see them as a true accessory for their weapons and tactical equipment.
But some Lake City bullets have been seized from drug traffickers, violent criminals, anti-government groups, rioters at the U.S. Capitol and Mexican cartel smugglers. They were confiscated from a man in Massachusetts who threatened to kill President Barack Obama and a man at Los Angeles International Airport after he shot a civilian and three TSA agents, killing one.
The Lake City rounds have been linked to at least a dozen mass shootings involving AR-15-type firearms.
The list includes filming at the Century 16 theater in Aurora, Colorado, in 2012; a social services center in San Bernardino, California, in 2015; a music festival on the Las Vegas Strip in 2017; the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, the following month; Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, in 2018; the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh that same year; the streets of Midland and Odessa, Texas, in 2019; a FedEx warehouse in Indianapolis in 2021; tattoo studios in the Denver area later that year; a Tops supermarket in Buffalo in 2022; Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, days later; and a Colorado Springs nightclub, also last year.
Payton Gendron, sentenced to life in prison for killing 10 people and wounding three at a Buffalo supermarket, had mentioned Lake City in his manifesto and in his online diary. He planned to shoot a security guard through a window, he wrote, and the bullets fired in Lake City were “the best barrier-penetrating ammunition I could get.”
The connection to high-profile crimes was a concern for the plant’s contractors.
Secrecy around commercial production has helped obscure its scale, and the Army has consistently downplayed the plant’s role in manufacturing ammunition for civilians. But four former employees, who were not authorized to speak publicly, said contractors were concerned about the possibility of Lake City ammunition showing up in violent crimes. In particular, after the mass shootings, managers were “terrified” that journalists would discover a connection, one of them said.