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Bread and bullets: Some Southern supermarkets now sell ammo out of vending machines

An ammunition vending machine pictured inside a Super C-Mart grocery store in Noble, Okla.
Anna Pope
/
KOSU
An ammunition vending machine pictured inside a Super C-Mart grocery store in Noble, Okla.

Adults in some U.S. states can now buy gun ammunition out of AI-powered vending machines right at their local grocery store.

The company that makes them argues it’s a safer way to sell ammo than online or off the shelf. But experts have raised concerns about increasing its availability in a country where gun violence is already widespread.

American Rounds LLC currently stocks its “automated ammo retail machines” in eight supermarkets across Alabama, Oklahoma and Texas (at least one was removed earlier this month from an Alabama location, per local news reports). They are launching another this week in Colorado and say many more are on the way.

“We had requests in Hawaii, requests in Alaska, from California to Florida and every state in between for the most part,” CEO Grant Magers told NPR. “We have currently about 200 grocery stores that we're working on fulfilling orders on machines for.”

The Dallas-based company, which Magers says has about 10 employees, shot into the national media spotlight this month. But it has been supplying stores with vending machines since November 2023, when it installed its first at a Fresh Value location in Pell City, Ala.

Magers said he was approached earlier that year by “some strategic partners that we had done business with in another space” who were interested in possibly using high-tech vending machines to sell ammo at grocery stores. His team set out to investigate the landscape.

“Ammunition … is traditionally sold off the shelf,” he said. “[It] just sits openly like boxes of cereal at a grocery store.”

Federal law prohibits dealers from selling handgun ammunition to anyone under 21, and long gun ammunition to anyone under 18.

The same federal laws that disqualify people from accessing firearms based on things like their criminal history also apply to ammunition, though do not require sellers to conduct background checks, according to Giffords, a gun control research and advocacy center. Only a handful of states have passed laws requiring background checks or licenses to purchase ammunition.

Magers said the way that ammunition is currently sold — online and on the shelves at gun stores, sporting goods stores and big box retailers — makes it easy for people to steal it and for minors to order it illegally behind a keyboard.

“When we looked at the market, we wanted to create a safer environment for ammunition while still respecting the integrity of the 2A community,” he said, referring to the Second Amendment.

Magers acknowledges that not everyone will see self-serve ammo machines at grocery stores as a step forward. But he says they’re not like the Redbox booths or old-school vending machines that many people may be picturing.

Instead, he describes them as 2,000-pound, triple-locked, double-walled steel boxes that are installed indoors, monitored by security cameras and restocked only by his vetted staff members.

A federal license is not required to sell ammunition, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) told NPR in a statement. It added that commercial sales “must comply with state laws as well as any applicable federal laws.”

Magers says the company does not currently have plans to use the technology for background checks but will continue to follow federal, state and local laws.

“If you look at the way it is currently sold in our country, we are the safest and most secure method of ammo retail sales on the market today,” Magers adds.

Gun violence prevention researchers and gun control advocates are not convinced.

Kris Brown, the president of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, said in a statement that stores agreeing to host the machines put their customers and communities at risk, and also open the door to legal liability.

“We need to remove these machines from our grocery stores, and we need to do it now," she added.

The machines scan faces and IDs to check customers' ages

The machines carry major brands of shotgun, rifle and handgun rounds that are commonly available at other retailers, Magers says. Some inventory varies by location based on the phase of hunting season and what’s popular in specific communities.

“We had someone tell us that they wanted a .410 shotgun round in this particular community because a lot of the folks there will use that for varmints and snakes and things like that that get on their property,” he explained.

The vending machines use touch-screen technology: shoppers can scroll through and select which products they want.

In order to check out they must scan their ID, which Magers says serves both to verify that they are of age (which is 21 at all American Rounds machines) and that their ID isn’t fake or expired.

The machine then does a facial recognition scan to match the shopper’s face to their ID — otherwise, the transaction is voided. Magers stresses that the company doesn’t store or sell that data.

The machines are all in supermarkets in rural areas, Magers says, where hunters would otherwise have to drive an hour or more to buy ammo at a big box store. He says the vending machines have increased foot traffic at local grocery stores, and also seem to be selling well.

The company restocks the machines every two to four weeks depending on their location, he added.

Magers says “98%” of the feedback his team has received is positive.

“We are receiving up to 20 emails an hour of complete support,” he said, adding that requests for machines are coming from individual grocery store locations as well as larger groups.

Magers estimates the company could roll out 20 machines a month at its current staffing level, but is trying to scale up quickly — including raising money — to meet that demand.

He dreams of eventually expanding the machine’s offerings to include things like hunting and fishing licenses and National Rifle Association memberships and says some of those could be available by the end of this year.

The technology holds risk as well as promise, experts say

Experts in gun violence prevention and cybersecurity tell NPR they have their doubts about the vending machines.

"I’m not sure what problem the company is solving that wouldn't be solved by responsible ownership of any facility selling ammunition," says George Tita, a professor of criminology, law and society at the University of California, Irvine.

He says the solution to minors buying ammunition could be not selling it online or illegally in the first place, "rather than face recognition and an I.D. in your local grocery store."

Plus, he says, vending machines raise a whole new set of concerns. For example, they could sell ammo to people who aren't legally allowed to own a gun, like those who were convicted of felonies or certain domestic violence crimes.

And they can’t look out for signs of distress or other warnings that a customer might use the ammo to hurt themselves or others.

"A vending machine is not going to be able to say, 'Hey are you okay?’ or ‘Why do you need this ammunition?,'" Tita added.

Similar concerns were echoed by Mar Miller, who was shopping at a Super C-Mart in Noble, Okla., that houses one such machine.

"So if they look, who knows, tweaked out or crazy," Miller told member station KOSU. "I mean, that's something you can judge as a person better than a computer can."

Experts say it's as important to regulate ammunition as firearms themselves.

“Obviously, you can't you can't fire a gun without ammunition,” says Chethan Sathya, director of the Center for Gun Violence Prevention at Northwell Health.

Sathya says the vending machines' AI-enforced age requirement could potentially help keep ammunition from getting into the wrong hands.

“This is not a substitute by any means for background checks, which is a common-sense public health policy,” he says. “But this could be a staggered approach towards at least understanding identity and making sure that folks are the right age.”

As long as the machines work, that is.

Andrew Whaley, the senior technical director at Norwegian cybersecurity firm Promon, told Business Insider that the technology is likely not 100% immune to hacking or bugs, which could facilitate illegitimate transactions.

"The simple truth is, as retailers continue to digitize services like this and infuse them with advanced technology, they inevitably broaden the attack surface for cybercriminals, transforming each innovation into a potential vulnerability,” he said, adding that bad actors could theoretically take advantage of any weaknesses in the scanners to bypass its security measures.

In general, making ammunition accessible in more places is dangerous from a public safety perspective, Sathya says, pointing to studies that show that increasing the availability of firearms and ammunition leads to higher rates of injuries and deaths associated with them.

“If you're increasing access to ammunition and it's just that much easier for someone to go to their corner store and buy it, it's kind of common sense that certain firearm injury and death rates are going to go up, like suicides, public mass shootings and unintentional injuries or potentially certain types of homicide,” he added.

The U.S. already struggles with high rates of gun violence, prompting the surgeon general to declare it a public health crisis just last month. The country has seen some 8,934 homicides, 17,060 injuries and 284 mass shootings in 2024 alone, according to data from the Gun Violence Archive.

In theory, Sathya says, the machines could do even more to promote responsible gun ownership — like running background checks and including information about how to use and store ammunition safely.

“Having firearms stored separately from ammunition, unloaded and locked up so that kids and elderly and yourself can’t accidentally injure somebody or that someone won’t commit suicide or homicide in the household, that's important stuff,” he added. “So I think there's an opportunity there, if this company wants to take that, to actually enhance firearm safety and public health.”

Copyright 2024 NPR

Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.