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 more and more cartridges for the commercial market as military demand declined.
The military says the business activities are aimed at keeping the plant operating so that military production can quickly increase, while reducing the cost of its munitions. The current contractor, Olin Winchester, did not respond to requests from The Times.
More than a million pages of search warrants, police evidence logs, ballistics reports, forfeiture records and court proceedings compiled by the Times provide a detailed look at how Lake City munitions, once destined in war, sometimes fell into the hands of criminals. Here are four takeaways.
Lake City is one of the nation’s largest manufacturers of commercial AR-15 rifle cartridges.
By reviewing annual reports, 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 made hundreds of millions of dollars. touring for the commercial market every year since at least 2011.
For most of this period, its commercial operations exceeded its military activities. By 2021, commercial production — which includes retail sales as well as purchases by law enforcement and foreign governments — had exceeded military production by more than two times, according to a historical overview provided by the military.
As these rifles showed up in crimes, so did the factory’s ammunition.
The vast majority of Lake City cartridges sold by retailers went 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 those used by the military, while others view them as a true accessory to their weapons and tactical gear.
But some Lake City bales have been seized from drug dealers, violent criminals, anti-government groups, U.S. Capitol rioters and smugglers for Mexican cartels. They were confiscated from a Massachusetts man who threatened to assassinate President Barack Obama and from a man at Los Angeles International Airport after he shot a civilian and three TSA agents, killing one of them .
The Lake City shootings have been linked to at least a dozen mass shootings involving AR-15-style weapons.
The list includes filming at the Century 16 movie 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, a few days later; and a nightclub in Colorado Springs, also last year.
Payton Gendron, sentenced to life in prison for killing 10 people and injuring three at the Buffalo supermarket, had mentioned Lake City in his manifesto and online newspaper. He planned to shoot a security guard through a window, he wrote, and the bullets fired in Lake City were “the best barrier-penetrating ammo I could get.”
A connection to high-profile crimes was a source of concern for the plant’s contractors.
Secrecy surrounding commercial production helped hide its scale, and the military regularly downplayed the plant’s role in manufacturing munitions for civilians. But four former employees, who were not authorized to speak publicly, said contractors worried about the possibility of Lake City munitions being used in violent crimes. After mass shootings, in particular, leaders were “terrified” that journalists might uncover a link, one said.