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, a New York Times investigation found, the site has increasingly produced rounds for the commercial market as military demand has diminished.
The Army says the commercial business is meant to keep the factory in good working order so that military production can be quickly ramped up, while also reducing the cost of its ammunition. The current contractor, Olin Winchester, did not respond to inquiries from The Times.
More than one million pages of search warrants, police evidence logs, ballistic reports, forfeiture records and court proceedings compiled by The Times provide a sweeping accounting of how Lake City ammunition, once intended for war, has sometimes fallen into the hands of criminals. Here are four takeaways.
Lake City is one of the country’s biggest manufacturers of commercial rounds for AR-15-style rifles.
By reviewing annual reports, earnings-call transcripts and government documents, and interviewing more than 40 former employees and others with knowledge of Lake City’s operations, The Times was able to determine that the site, in Independence, Mo., 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 outstripped its military business. By 2021, commercial output — which includes retail sales as well as purchases by law enforcement agencies and foreign governments — had outpaced military production by more than two times, according to a historical overview provided by the Army.
As those rifles have appeared in crimes, so has the plant’s ammunition.
The vast majority of Lake City rounds sold by retailers have gone to law-abiding citizens, including hunters, farmers and target shooters. Some are drawn to them because they are made with the same materials and often to the same specifications as the military’s, while others see them as an authentic accessory for their tactical weapons and gear.
But some Lake City rounds have been seized from drug dealers, violent felons, antigovernment groups, rioters at the U.S. Capitol and smugglers for Mexican cartels. They were confiscated from a man in Massachusetts who threatened to assassinate President Barack Obama and from a man at Los Angeles International Airport after he fired at a civilian and three T.S.A. agents, killing one.
Lake City rounds have been tied to at least a dozen mass shootings involving AR-15-style guns.
The list includes shootings at the Century 16 cinema in Aurora, Colo., in 2012; a social services center in San Bernardino, Calif., in 2015; a music festival on the Las Vegas Strip in 2017; the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, the next month; Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla, 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; the Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, days afterward; and a Colorado Springs nightclub, also last year.
Payton Gendron, sentenced to life in prison for killing 10 and injuring three at the Buffalo supermarket, had mentioned Lake City in his manifesto and online diary. He planned to fire at a security guard through a window, he wrote, and the rounds made at Lake City were “the best barrier penetration ammo I can get.”
A connection to high-profile crimes was a source of concern for the plant’s contractors.
Secrecy around commercial production has helped to hide its scale, and the Army has routinely played down the plant’s role in manufacturing ammunition for civilians. But four former employees, who were not authorized to speak publicly, said contractors worried about the possibility of Lake City ammunition’s appearing in violent crimes. After mass shootings, in particular, managers were “terrified” that journalists might discover a connection, one of them said.