Christopher Hixon, a Navy veteran with 27 years of service including time in the Persian Gulf, received training with government ammunition that was easily recognizable due to the distinct “LC” marking on its brass casings.
Back in 2018, while serving as the athletic director at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, Hixon faced a former student who was wielding an AR-15-style gun. This semi-automatic rifle, which was designed to mimic military weapons, was loaded with ammunition bearing the same “LC” stamp.
Located in Independence, Missouri, the Lake City Army Ammunition Plant, or simply LCAPP, was constructed during World War II and has played a crucial role in supplying rifle cartridges to the U.S. military. In fact, LCAPP has been the primary source of these cartridges since the end of the Vietnam War.
According to an investigation conducted by The New York Times, the factory has been distributing military-grade ammunition to the commercial market for several years, resulting in the “LC” signature being found at various crime scenes, including those of some of the most horrific mass shootings in the country. Billions of rounds of ammunition have been pumped into the market, indicating the extent to which the factory has contributed to the proliferation of weapons in the country.
The Army-oversaw plant, currently run by a private contractor, has become one of the largest producers of commercial rounds for the highly popular AR-15 rifle in the country. Despite the fact that the United States is currently supplying ammunition to Ukraine, this plant still holds its position as a top manufacturer.
Most of the retailers who sell Lake City rounds have reported that their customers are law-abiding citizens, including hunters and farmers, as well as target shooters. Many people are attracted to these rounds because they are manufactured using the same high-quality materials and with similar specifications as the military’s rounds. Additionally, some see these rounds as a genuine accessory for their tactical weapons and gear.
The Times has meticulously compiled over 1 million pages of search warrants, police evidence logs, ballistic reports, forfeiture records, and court proceedings, which reveal the widespread criminal use of Lake City ammunition in almost all 50 states. This ammunition, originally intended for war, has left a trail of illegal activity across towns and cities.
Three separate incidents involving Lake City rounds have resulted in devastating consequences. In Louisiana, a former Marine used these rounds to fatally shoot two police officers and a deputy sheriff. Similarly, in Texas, a former justice of the peace killed a district attorney and his wife, with spent Lake City casings being recovered at the scene. In yet another tragic incident, gang-related gunfire in Washington left a 10-year-old girl dead and the courtyard of an apartment complex filled with over 40 “LC” casings. The use of these rounds in such violent acts highlights the need for stricter regulations and increased awareness surrounding firearms and ammunition.
Last May, a residential neighborhood in Farmington, New Mexico, was struck by a tragic incident where a high school student, armed with ammunition from the plant, went on a rampage, resulting in the loss of three lives and injuring six others.
Numerous Lake City rounds have been confiscated from a wide range of individuals, including drug dealers, violent felons, anti-government groups, rioters at the U.S. Capitol, and smugglers for Mexican cartels. These rounds were even taken from a man in Massachusetts who had threatened to assassinate President Barack Obama. Another instance involved a man at Los Angeles International Airport who had fired at a civilian and three Transportation Security Administration agents, resulting in the death of one of them.
Since the tragic Aurora, Colorado movie theater shooting in 2012, the use of AR-15-style guns has been linked to numerous mass shootings. These include the Tree of Life synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh, the Robb Elementary School shooting in Uvalde, Texas, the FedEx warehouse shooting in Indianapolis, and the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. While authorities in Lewiston, Maine have not yet released ballistic information regarding the recent mass shooting that resulted in 18 deaths, it is clear that AR-15-style guns have been a common denominator in many such incidents.
The production of rifle cartridges at an Army site is the result of a mutually beneficial partnership between the Defense Department and the ammunition industry. This collaboration is a legacy of the war on terror, and the federal contract to operate Lake City’s manufacturing campus serves the purpose of not only saving taxpayer money but also keeping the facility prepared to scale up production quickly if needed.
The contractor is responsible for producing ammunition whenever the military requires it. However, apart from these requirements, they are free to maintain their production lines by conducting commercial operations. This allows for efficient utilization of resources and ensures that the production lines remain active.
According to an Army spokesperson, Justine Barati, the government has invested an impressive sum of $860 million over the past twenty years to upgrade and maintain the plant, and also to increase its capacity. Additionally, Lake City contractors have been required to bear some of the expenses. Presently, the contractor has been contributing a minimum of $10 million annually towards improvements, which can go up depending on production levels. These funds are designated for a variety of projects, ranging from renovations of office spaces to upgrades of equipment.
According to the Defense Department, a public-private partnership is crucial for maintaining national security.
According to Doug Bush, an assistant secretary of the Army who oversees acquisitions, the reason why they maintain and improve their ammunition plants is not solely because of economic reasons. Rather, it is to ensure that they have production capacity for military-specific items that can be quickly increased in case of a conflict. It is essential to have government-owned production capacity that can be surged when needed to meet the demands of the military.
According to a statement from a Defense Department official, the Army and taxpayers can benefit from lower costs through commercial utilization, while also keeping a skilled workforce ready to respond to surge requirements. It was noted that a study conducted in 2021 found that the government received a discount of 10% to 15% on ammunition through commercial sales. This highlights the potential benefits of utilizing commercial sales for the procurement of ammunition and other related goods and services.
There is a concerning trade-off that everyday Americans are facing when it comes to the manufacturing of commercial ammunition for the AR-15. What’s worrying is that this ammunition is being produced in significant quantities on government property, with little to no transparency regarding how it’s being marketed and sold to the public.
The true extent of the arrangement has been shrouded in secrecy, making it difficult to gauge its magnitude. Moreover, the Army has downplayed the significance of the plant in producing ammunition for civilians. A recent media tour of Lake City showcased the military operations and economic advantages to the area, but curiously excluded access to the building where the majority of commercial rounds are produced.
According to four former employees who were not authorized to speak publicly, the contractors at Lake City ammunition’s plant were constantly worried about the possibility of their products being used in high-profile crimes. The fear of being associated with such incidents was particularly intense after mass shootings. The managers were reportedly “terrified” at the thought of journalists discovering any connection to their site. These concerns were frequently discussed behind closed doors.
Olin Winchester, the current contractor in charge of managing Lake City since October 2020, is obligated to submit regular reports to the Army regarding their commercial production and sales. Although the information is not confidential, it is kept under close guard. Military officials have labeled it as proprietary and suggested reaching out to Olin Winchester for more specific details. Unfortunately, the company did not respond to requests for comment from the Times via email or phone.
After scrutinizing annual reports, earnings-call transcripts, and government documents, as well as conducting interviews with over 40 former employees and other individuals with insider knowledge of Lake City’s operations, it has been revealed that the facility has been producing hundreds of millions of rounds for the commercial market each year since at least 2011.
During the majority of its existence, the commercial aspect of the company exceeded its military operations. In fact, as of 2021, the commercial output, which encompasses retail sales, as well as acquisitions made by foreign governments and law enforcement agencies, has surpassed military production by over two times. This information was revealed in a historical overview displayed in a graphic during a media tour. However, the Army has since refused to disclose the underlying data and even denied the existence of the graphic at one point.
The AR-15 primarily uses the .223-caliber and 5.56 mm cartridges, which are widely available for purchase in various brands both in-store and online. Even the spent casings from Lake City, known for their high quality, are sought after in the market. However, following the tragic 2017 shooting at a country music festival in Las Vegas that resulted in the loss of 60 lives and injuries to hundreds more, it was discovered that the gunman had purchased Lake City casings that had been reloaded with new primers, powder, and bullets. This prompted a federal investigation into the matter.
During the 2021 earnings call of Olin Winchester’s parent company, analysts were pleasantly surprised to find that ammunition profits had surpassed their projections. The executives attributed this success to the Lake City contract.
According to the CEO of Olin Corp., Scott Sutton, the utilization of military-grade technology has not only become a crucial aspect of their military operations but also an integral part of their commercial business.
Tom Hixon, a member of the advisory board for the advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety, was taken aback by the extent of commercial activity in Lake City. Hixon, who is also the son of the late Marjory Stoneman Douglas athletic director, found the scope of the city’s business scene unexpected.
Hixon, who had served as a Marine, received training from Lake City ammunition. However, he was unaware that the same ammunition had been used in the Parkland shooting that claimed the lives of 16 individuals, including his father.
During an interview, Hixon stated that he did not hold the government or the Army responsible for his father’s passing. He acknowledged that even if the gunman hadn’t purchased Lake City rounds, he would have likely bought ammunition from another source.
Despite his reservations, he conveyed his worries about the possibility of the government unintentionally supporting the manufacturing of ammunition that is being sold to civilians.
According to him, this could potentially make it easier for individuals with malicious intentions to obtain it.
Federal Cartridge, the distributor of Lake City’s ammunition during the Parkland shooting, expressed condemnation for the “criminal misuse” of their products in a statement to the Times. Meanwhile, the Defense Department did not directly discuss the use of Lake City ammunition in mass killings and other crimes, but they did state that they have “no plan” to discontinue commercial sales at present.
The Tempo of Battle
Spread out across almost 4,000 acres of grassy land, the Lake City facility boasts the infrastructure of a mini metropolis, complete with its own fire department, water treatment plants and extensive roadways. The premises also house spacious warehouses, specialized facilities for handling explosives, and firing ranges designed for testing ammunition.
At the core of the operation lies Building One, where the machines tirelessly spin at high speeds to produce up to 1,200 rifle cartridges per minute. These cartridges are stamped with their year and place of manufacture, ensuring their authenticity and quality.
The most popular rounds for AR-15-style guns are produced by these machines. The 5.56 round, which is commonly utilized in standard-issue service rifles like the M16, is manufactured based on military specifications and features a small NATO symbol. On the other hand, the .223 round is produced to different specifications and does not have any military markings. These rounds are available to both law enforcement agencies and the general public.
Employees take great pride in the high manufacturing standards that are upheld in our company.
In a promotional video from 2009 showcasing the dedicated employees at the Lake City plant, a narrator expressed the deep bond and respect they share for both the ammunition they produce and the individuals who use it, whether they have a military background or not.
For over a decade now, the companies managing the website have been mandated to maintain a production capacity of approximately 1.6 billion rounds per annum. This prerequisite is fulfilled only when the equipment is utilized for the specific contract or endorsed commercial and third-party/facility use production, as per the terms of Olin Winchester’s contract.
The agreement provides an option for the machines to remain inactive while being sufficiently safeguarded from physical harm.
Lake City operators have consistently opted for the first choice, ensuring that the plant retains its ability to produce rounds while also enjoying the benefits of economies of scale. This has enabled them to generate significant profits through commercial sales.
The phrase ‘Flawlessly Reliable’ is an expression that emphasizes the dependability and consistency of something. It suggests that the subject is capable of performing its intended function without fail, and can be relied upon completely. This phrase is often used to describe products, services, or systems that are considered to be of the highest quality, and which have a track record of delivering excellent results. When something is described as ‘Flawlessly Reliable’, it gives people confidence that they can trust it to work as expected, and that it will not let them down when they need it most.
During World War II, a government-owned ammunition plant laid the foundation for becoming one of the world’s leading manufacturers of commercial rounds for semi-automatic rifles. This transformational journey is the story of its evolution.
During World War II, the demand for ammunition was so high that American industry was unable to keep up with production. To address this issue, the federal government constructed multiple factories and outsourced their management to private companies. One of these factories was established in Lake City, Missouri, with the help of future president Harry S. Truman, who contributed to the project by ceremoniously initiating its construction in 1940.
Following the end of the war, Lake City ceased operations for a brief period of time. For many years, the plant’s production remained consistent: during times of conflict in which U.S. troops were engaged, the facility produced billions of rounds, while during times of peace, manufacturing decreased. In the wake of the Cold War, production levels dwindled to just a few hundred million rounds annually.
After the tragic terrorist attacks of 9/11, Lake City was thrust back into the forefront. The city retrieved equipment that had been in storage and the Army allocated almost $50 million to expand production. The Army discovered that other American manufacturers could only produce 300 million rounds of ammunition, leaving them no choice but to seek additional resources from overseas.
During a Congressional hearing, an Army general made a promise to avoid the mistake of creating capacity during wartime only to disassemble it during peacetime.
According to a report by the government, a potential solution was to maintain the equipment in a state of readiness while adapting the number of work shifts to align with the demands of wartime operations.
Sources familiar with the discussions reveal that during the time when ATK (Alliant Techsystems) was the contractor, they proposed an alternative solution. Instead of reducing production during times of low military demand, ATK suggested that they could supplement the shortfall by selling rounds commercially.
During the 1990s, a law was passed to reduce defense budgets which allowed for commercial businesses to be conducted at specific government-owned defense installations. The previous contractor at Lake City had sold ammunition to the public, and ATK continued this practice using the packaging from Federal Cartridge, a reputable ammunition manufacturer which was acquired by ATK in 2001.
Fans of military-style weapons quickly became enamored with the rounds, developing a cult-like following. On AR15.com, a popular website for firearm enthusiasts, a guide to ammunition praised the rounds as “outstanding” and “flawlessly reliable.” In chat rooms on the site, gun experts advised others to stock up on the rounds due to their limited availability.
According to DeYoung’s statement to investors, while firearms were a profitable business, the real money was in ammunition. He explained that the growing popularity of first-person shooter video games, such as Call of Duty, was attracting new customers to the market.
According to the investigation, it was discovered that the cartridges had been manufactured at Lake City, as noted by the firearms analysis.
The public was unaware of the correlation between Lake City and the shooting in Louisiana. However, the management team at Lake City was preparing for the potential connection to be revealed in news reports as the tragic events unfolded.
According to four individuals who were employed by the contractors working at the plant, there was a concern that any publicity may lead to a political backlash and potentially endanger the plant’s commercial production.
According to three individuals familiar with the matter, the company had submitted seven trademark applications for various products featuring the Lake City label. However, after the Army raised objections, these applications were ultimately withdrawn.
As time passed, the number of shootings involving AR-15-style firearms grew, and with it came increased scrutiny and criticism of the companies responsible for manufacturing these weapons and their accompanying accessories.
Following the Parkland shooting incident in 2018, several retailers such as REI suspended orders for Vista’s camping and sports products due to the company’s involvement in the firearms business. Dick’s Sporting Goods also joined in, announcing that it would no longer sell assault-style rifles and would instead destroy them instead of returning them to the manufacturers. Walmart, which had been selling Lake City ammunition for years, also made a move in 2019 by deciding to stop carrying .223 and 5.56 cartridges.
Semi-automatic rifle shootings at Walmart stores in El Paso, Texas, and Southaven, Mississippi, resulted in 24 deaths and numerous injuries. Walmart’s CEO, Doug McMillon, conveyed in a letter to employees that the current situation is deemed unacceptable. A spokesperson for Walmart stated that the company has implemented additional measures concerning guns and ammunition. These measures include discontinuing the sale of handguns and military-style rifles, as well as introducing video recording at the point of sale for firearms.
<b> ‘Unexpected Profits’ </b>
Problems escalated as Lake City’s management underwent a change in 2018 when defense contracting giant Northrop Grumman acquired Orbital ATK and its contract to operate the plant, which was about to expire. Northrop Grumman, unsuccessful in securing a new contract, yielded the management to Olin Winchester, who committed to investing a minimum of $70 million in the facility, as stated by the Army. While Northrop Grumman acknowledged its role in plant operation, it refrained from providing further comments.
Olin Winchester assumed control of the plant in October 2020 amid a significantly altered sales landscape. The demand for ammunition surged due to the pandemic and nationwide protests following George Floyd’s killing. An online ammunition retailer, Ammo.com, reported a more than 1,000% increase in sales of the AR-15’s popular rounds in some states during the first 18 months of the pandemic.
By 2020, the facility’s production lines had long been oriented towards commercial sales, prompting questions about the efficacy of Lake City and similar private contractor arrangements for the government. Bruce Jette, an assistant secretary of the Army, expressed a desire for the industry to collaborate with the government but cautioned against turning a blind eye to potential areas for unexpected profits during a congressional hearing.
In response to Senate discussions on a gun control bill following the Buffalo and Uvalde massacres, the National Shooting Sports Foundation, a trade group for the firearms industry, cautioned that the Army might halt commercial production at Lake City. Larry Keane, an executive from the organization, highlighted the potential impact on law-abiding citizens’ access to over 30% of the ammunition used in AR-15 style rifles on its website.
Concerned about this possibility, Rep. Sam Graves, representing the Lake City area, led numerous lawmakers in urging the Biden administration to leave production unchanged. In a letter, they argued that any such move would blatantly infringe on the Second Amendment of the United States Constitution, limiting law-abiding gun owners’ ability to legally purchase or use lawful semiautomatic rifles.
Responding to these concerns, a White House spokesperson, via social media, and later the Defense Department, denied any plans to disrupt production.
<b> Full Military Honors </b>
Prosecutors never established the source of Nikolas Cruz’s Lake City rounds in the Parkland shooting. However, virtually anyone seeking such ammunition can easily purchase it online. Olin Winchester even offered a mail-in rebate until the end of September.
A week after the incident, Hixon, the athletic director, received a burial with full military honors, including three volleys of blank rounds.
The Marines, responsible for the rifle salute, chose not to disclose the origin of the blanks. Still, Lake City typically produces those used in funerals like Hixon’s. While these rounds are provided at no cost, they are subject to strict regulations. They can only be discharged in ceremonial rifles approved by the Army. To obtain them, applicants must complete a form and await approval from the Illinois-based unit overseeing the plant.
In an online post, an Army representative emphasized the thorough checks and balances of the program, advising organization officers to initiate the application process well in advance.