Homeland Security buying pricey ammo as department-wide cuts take hold

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The Department of Homeland Security is spending more and more on pricey hollow-point bullets for law-enforcement officers -- even as it plans to enforce furloughs and other cuts on Customs and Border Protection employees due to sequestration.

The Department of Homeland Security plans to buy more than 1.6 billion rounds over the next five years for training and on-duty purposes. They cite the numerous law enforcement agencies contained within the department with employees who carry weapons. But the purchases have led to criticism that the agency is spending money on bullets that can cost twice as much as regular ammo -- and questions over whether those bullets are really needed for training purposes.

"Obviously you want to know how a hollow point is going to cycle through your weapon," Scott McCurley, manager for Maryland-based Horst and McCann firing range and a former soldier for the U.S. Army, told FoxNews.com. "But I don't think there's much of a difference when training. One box of rounds per gun is enough. The cost outweighs the purpose."

It's unclear how many of the total rounds sought would be hollow-point, but a recent solicitation specifically called for 360,000 rounds of hollow-point bullets.

Rep. Leonard Lance, R-N.J., who last week wrote a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano asking about the rationale for the purchases, also questioned the cost.

"With sequestration in effect, and the federal debt approaching a record $17 trillion, members of Congress like Leonard Lance believe our federal government should not be spending taxpayer dollars on the stockpiling of billions of rounds of ammunition," his chief of staff Todd Mitchell said in a statement to FoxNews.com. "That's why it's important for DHS officials to explain the need and foundation for this acquisition."

Others disagree, saying that it's important to use the same equipment during training as in the field.

“I have no idea why they would need 1.6 billion rounds, but the reality is that it is essential to train with the same ammo as you would use in real situations,” Steven Howard, a Michigan-based attorney, and weapons and ammunition expert, told FoxNews.com.

A box of 25 rounds of hollow-point bullets can cost double the price of regular, full metal jacket bullets at up to $40 per box.

A statement issued from the Department of Homeland Security maintains the position the agency has taken in recent weeks.

“DHS routinely establishes strategic sourcing contracts that combine the requirements of all its components for commonly purchased goods and services such as ammunition, computer equipment, and information technology services. These strategic sourcing contracts help leverage the purchasing power of DHS to efficiently procure equipment and supplies,” the statement reads.

The statement said one solicitation under the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center has a ceiling of up to 750 million rounds, which the department said allows "flexibility over the next 5 years for training of over 90 federal agencies."

"A separate 5-year department-wide contract allows the purchase of UP TO 450 million rounds of duty ammunition for our law enforcement officers and agents,” the statement also reads. That contract applies to all DHS agencies except the Coast Guard, which uses Pentagon ammo contracts.

“With more than 100,000 armed law enforcement personnel in DHS, significant quantities of ammunition are used to support law enforcement operations, quarterly qualifications, and training, to include advanced firearms training exercises," the department said.

Howard notes that use of hollow-point ammo by law enforcement officers is more efficient and even safer for the public.

“It (hollow points) cuts down on ricochets which means few bystanders will be hit. Hollow points rarely go through one target,” He said.

Officials at the Department of Homeland Security told FoxNews.com that the amount of ammunition is simply a “ceiling” or estimate and does not mean that DHS will buy or require the full amount of ammo. They also said that the number of rounds purchased annually by the department has remained steady since 2009 and that the amounts ordered are usually much less as they are purchased on an “as-needed basis.”

During the fiscal year 2012, DHS purchased nearly 94 million rounds of ammo for use across the department except for the U.S. Coast Guard.

Ammunition is used on a quarterly basis within DHS in training and firearms re-qualification activities in addition to everyday duty among over 100,000 officers and agents.

The news of the intended ammo purchase comes at the same time as automatic budget reductions are set to take effect across the department, including at Customs and Border Protection. The division expects planned furloughs of employees, reductions to overtime and a hiring freeze to increase wait times at ports of entry, including international arrivals at airports.

Officials from CBP have said reductions to Border Patrol overtime will begin on April 7 and furloughs of all CBP employees are expected to begin in mid-April. The agency said “field locations” are reporting sporadic increases in wait times at airports and land border ports due to reduced primary staffing -- between March 14-20, the agency said nearly 200 flights experienced wait times of over two hours, and certain ports experienced wait times that were just as long.

“CBP is working diligently to analyze the Fiscal Year 2013 Appropriations bill and sequestration impacts, and is developing a plan to implement this budget in a way that minimizes the impact on operations and our workforce,” a spokesperson said in a statement to Fox News.

But Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, blasted the administration for the CBP cuts. He said they "amount to nothing short of a calculated, willful neglect of what should be a president's top priority: protecting the homeland and keeping Americans safe."