GAINESVILLE, Virginia – The camouflage ribbon was in place. Fifteen yards away and 21 feet off the ground, archer Jeff Ware pumped his fist into the air, cocked his bow and released. The arrow pierced the ribbon in one go, and the crowd went wild.
“Y’all ready to go shopping?” Ware shouted. “Whoo!”
And with that, the doors of the region’s first Cabela’s – the chain of hunting, fishing and camping gear stores – swung open and 2,000 people streamed in, clapping and cheering.
This opening, many shoppers said, was proof that Donald Trump’s America is thriving, even near the nation’s capital. The megastore – about 35 miles up the road from the White House – is the company’s 86th location and its closest to Washington. Among its offerings: an indoor archery range, a gun library with antiques that cost as much as $6,500, and a display of special firearms donated by the National Rifle Association. Opening weekend festivities included an all-ages BB gun shooting range in the parking lot.
In short, shoppers heralded the new store as a victory for Virginia gun owners. Many said they feel underrepresented in a state that would have put Hillary Clinton in office (she skimmed past Donald Trump here with 50 percent of the vote). Meanwhile, back in Sidney, Nebraska, where Cabela’s is headquartered, 79 percent of residents had voted for Trump.
“It’s a constant battle, keeping our gun rights,” said William Fisher, 71, of Haymarket, Virginia, who got his first gun at age 16. “The fact that Cabela’s is here now, and that they carry firearms, is another step in the right direction.”
Among the first in the door was Dustin Heinssen from Culpeper, Va., who had been waiting outside for 13 hours in a sleeping bag. He held his 6-month-old daughter, McKenzie, who had joined him in the morning wearing a pink camouflage cap that said, “I hunt for hugs.”
“Cabela’s is awesome,” he said. “I was hoping to possibly get some more guns.”
In a region full of them, Cabela’s stands as its own monument to gun rights. Among the first things customers see when they walk in is the Second Amendment, etched floor-to-ceiling in stone at the store’s entrance: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”
There are other patriotic displays throughout the 79,999-square-foot space, too: A Bill of Rights mural at the front of the store flanked by buffalo and bald eagle mounts, and an homage to President Teddy Roosevelt in the gun library.
“We wanted to do a patriotic theme for this store, since this is the nation’s capital,” said Nathan Borowski, a spokesman for the company. “There’s a lot of outdoor heritage here – and seeing how the NRA’s headquarters are just down the street, it just made a lot of sense.”
The U.S. Constitution matters a lot to shoppers like Guy Arndt, 63. He had driven more than two hours from Augusta, W.Va., to see the store.
Arndt was buying two chairs, rifle primers and a dog collar for his German coonhound mix.
No guns today, though. “You name it and I already have it,” he said. But he couldn’t remember how many.
“Hey, Bradley,” he shouted to his son, “how many guns do we have altogether?”
Bradley shrugged. “60?”
Like many others here, Arndt says he is breathing a sigh of relief after President Trump’s victory. For weeks before the election, he had worried that Clinton would win the presidency and threaten his gun rights. To prepare, he bought a rifle and stocked up on ammunition.
“I really don’t know what would’ve happened had she gotten in there and done what she said she was going to do to,” Arndt said. “It would’ve killed the Second Amendment.”
Clinton had called for closing loopholes that allow people to buy guns online or at gun shows without undergoing criminal background checks. She also vowed to “keep military-style weapons off our streets.” (It’s quite complicated to kill a constitutional amendment, requiring action by both houses of Congress and state lawmakers.)
It is well-documented that gun sales ebb and flow depending on who is in the White House. A Democratic president – or the expectation of one – can send gun sales soaring to record highs. A Republican president generally has the opposite effect, and Trump is no exception.
In the two months since Trump took office, gun-sale background checks have fallen 18 percent compared with a year earlier, according to FBI data.
Gunmakers’ stocks have also tumbled: Share prices of American Outdoor Brands, formerly Smith & Wesson Holding, have fallen as much as 34 percent since election night. Sturm, Ruger & Co.’s stock, meanwhile, is down about 20 percent.
“You’ve never had a better administration for the gun industry than Obama,” Bob Evans, an analyst for Pennington Capital said on a recent call with Sturm, Ruger executives. “And now, never a worse one for the gun industry than Trump.”
Fisher, the 71-year-old from Haymarket, doesn’t see it that way. Right after the election, he went out and bought another handgun. (He declined to say how many he owns but said he also has two hunting rifles and a shotgun.) He takes the 9mm with him most everywhere he goes.
He worries. People seem on edge these days. It’s more important than ever, he said, to be armed.
“I hate to say this, but I won’t be surprised if we start to see some major attacks in this country,” Fisher said. “I’ve never seen people as divided as they are now.”
The retired machine maintenance worker says he’s glad Trump is in the White House – he donated $200 to his campaign, and most days he wears a camouflage “Make America Great Again” cap.
Trump, he said, is the first president who talks like he does and seems to understand the issues important to him, like clamping down on illegal immigration and loosening gun laws. His biggest hope, Fisher said, is that Trump will deliver on his promise to make concealed-carry permits valid in all 50 states. Right now, Fisher said, it is difficult to take road trips across the country with his gun in tow.
“If I want to drive up to Niagara Falls, I’ve got to check every state to make sure I’m compliant,” he said. “It’s a big hassle, and completely unnecessary.”
Cabela’s executives said they homed in on Gainesville because they knew the demand was there. Thousands of locals were already customers of the company’s website and catalogues, and many others had visited its other stores. And it didn’t hurt that Virginia has more than 2 million acres of public hunting land. This is the third Cabela’s in the state to open in as many years. The others are in Bristol and Short Pump.
“We knew we had a lot of customers here,” said Borowski, the spokesman. “This crowd – 5,000 people in two hours – definitely shows we made the right choice.”
The first customers had arrived, he said, by Tuesday at 4 p.m. Now it was Thursday morning at 10, and the crowd had swelled to thousands. The night before, more than 200 people had slept outside, scattering tents, cots and sleeping bags along the perimeter of the store, waiting for it to open.
“It’s almost like they were tailgating,” Borowski said. “They love this store.”
Chris S., who is 41 and declined to give his last name, had driven nearly five hours from Lebanon, New Jersey, to be at the opening. He wore a red “Make America Great Again” cap and was looking to add an air rifle to his collection of a dozen pistols.
“This is like Toys R Us for me,” he said, standing under an antler chandelier in the store’s gun library. “Since I’m here, maybe I’ll buy some ammo and scopes, some other gear, too.”
Over by the store’s archery range, Michael Thompson, 22, and two friends were eyeing a display of crossbows. Between the three of them, they had 14 guns and were considering buying more.
“Coming here when you’re a gun enthusiast is kind of like going to a grocery store while you’re hungry,” said Thompson, from Bristow, Va. “You just want to buy everything.”
Since its founding in 1961 as a mail-order fishing bait service, Cabela’s has built a loyal following at its 86 stores, which have become a one-stop shop for all types of outdoors gear. Last year, the company had sales of $3.56 billion, a 73 percent increase from a decade earlier.
In October, rival Bass Pro Shops announced plans to take over the company for about $5.5 billion. Antitrust regulators have since raised concerns about the merger. The deal has yet to be finalized.
But business at Cabela’s has slipped in recent years because of competition from smaller outfitters and online retailers. In the first half of 2016, the number of purchases at the company’s stores fell by more than 8 percent. New megastores like the one in Gainesville are part of Cabela’s plans to attract large swaths of customers from new parts of the country.
A couple of hours in, it seemed to be working. More than 5,000 people had been through the store’s front doors. Another hundred or so waited outside.
“This is unreal, just unreal,” said Gary Lawrence, 70, who has about 25 guns. “The lines were so long we could see them from the interstate.”
By the time Jennifer McClure made it to the checkout counter, she had been at Cabela’s for nearly four hours. She and her 2-year-old daughter had arrived at 7:50 a.m. “My husband got called into work; otherwise, he’d have been there, too,” she said.
A few yards away, a man pushed a boy in a shopping cart through a display of 3-D shooting targets.
“Deer, deer, duckie, gobble gobble,” said the child, wearing a camouflage pullover. “Deer, deer, deer. So many deer.”
Back in the gun library, 25-year-old Carissa Phillips picked up a rifle. Her Smith & Wesson pistol was tucked into her denim skirt. Her 12-gauge shotgun was at home.
“This is one of my favorite guns,” she said, moving her fingers down the barrel of the lever-action 30-30. “It’s got that Old Western-y feel that I love.”
The rifle – which costs between $500 and $700 – is the next big purchase on her list. Sometimes, she said, she borrows her friend’s to hunt deer in her family’s back yard in Warrenton, Va. But really, she’d like to buy her own.
Today, though, is not the day. She leaves Cabela’s with just one item: a coffee mug printed with the Bill of Rights, for $6.99.
“But I’ll definitely be back,” she said. “I’m going to buy that rifle.”