You can tell Election Day is near because leaves are down and gun sales are up.
“It’s been steady all year. It’s just in the past couple of weeks we’ve really started to see large spikes,” said Will Doss, retail manager of Town Gun Shop in Richmond. “We’re up double-digits.”
Nationwide, gun sales jumped 17 percent from September to October, and last month’s sales were 18 percent higher than the same time last year, according to recent FBI background check data.
Retailers have reported surging gun sales every four years at election time, as uncertainty about the future and concern about changes to gun laws make people want to stock up, just in case. This year that spike is coming during a campaign season that has seen especially heated rhetoric about guns.
As Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton has called for tighter background checks and restrictions on military-style weapons, some supporters of Republican Donald Trump have made a point of wearing firearms at public events and even suggested taking them to polling places.
But guns have been hot for some time now. Beginning in 2003, gun sales have gone up for 13 straight years, although the numbers rise and fall from month to month, according to the FBI data. Last year’s total of more than 23 million FBI firearms background checks was roughly double the number for 2007, and this year is on pace to blow that away.
Those stats don’t translate directly to sales figures — each incident may not lead to a sale, or it may lead to a single sale of multiple weapons. But it’s seen as a reliable gauge for the industry.
Last week, for example, the manufacturer Sturm, Ruger reported that its sales for the quarter that ended in October were up by a third, compared with the same period in 2015.
A Virginia State Police database of firearm records checks also shows that each month of this year has seen more apparent sales than the same month the year before, with particular spikes in July — during the nominating conventions — and October.
“Just guessing, I’d say we’re up 20 percent” this month, said Grace Moates, owner of Bob Moates Sport Shop in Midlothian, Va. “It’s because a majority of people are afraid that if Hillary wins . . . she would limit their rights to keep and bear arms.”
Moates’s shop is geared toward hunting and fishing, but she said she has seen a sharp increase in women looking to buy guns for protection. Just the other day, she said, an elderly woman signed up for a concealed-weapons class and bought a handbag designed to hold a gun.
“They’re tired of going anywhere and feeling vulnerable,” said Moates, whose husband started the shop in 1960 but died in 2009. She has a Trump/Pence sign outside and figures that almost all of her customers share her political views.
Last week, the Brady Campaign, a gun control group, warned that increasing gun sales are linked to threats of election-related violence. But Moates said the gun owners she knows intend no such thing.
“That’s fabricated,” agreed customer Jeff Daulton, 53, who works in road construction. In his experience, it’s liberals who get more emotional about issues such as guns and politics. “We can’t agree to have a conversation if you won’t even listen to what we say,” he said.
At Town Gun, which caters more to a law enforcement and self-protection clientele, the fastest growing market is for concealed carry, Doss said. And women are a major driver of that business. “Just seeing what’s going on in the world, people realize they need to defend themselves and their families,” he said.
But political issues will be addressed through voting, he added, not threats or intimidation at the polls. “Law-abiding gun owners are very polite,” Doss said. “An armed society is a polite society.”
While Trump was not his first choice for president, Doss said he will vote for him because “I am voting for the Second Amendment.” The spike in gun sales is driven by fear that Clinton will use an executive order to tighten gun laws, he said, and many gun owners worry that she will revive efforts by Bill Clinton during his administration to ban assault weapons or put a cap on high-capacity ammunition magazines.
Similar fears pushed gun sales to record levels when President Obama was elected in 2008 and 2012. So far this year, sales are even higher — though the biggest spikes always come after the ballots are counted in November and December.
Gun shop owners dislike the cyclical nature of the business. “You want to see slow, steady growth,” Doss said, noting that some small sellers have actually struggled to stay in business as demand rises and falls.
That’s certainly a concern for Nick Fornarotto, 72, whose Buck & Doe Gun Shop in rural Buckingham County, west of Richmond, relies on repair work and on word-of-mouth among area hunters.
His business has fallen dramatically — “down maybe 75 percent,” said Fornarotto, whose shop is behind his house near the railroad town of Dillwyn. “Normally this time of year I’m so busy I don’t even have time to go inside to take a break. Now — nothing.”
Few people are coming in for repairs, and the occasional sales customer is looking for the cheapest possible guns. “They don’t have money to buy a gun right now because the economy is so bad,” Fornarotto said.
There are fewer jobs in his part of the state, he said, and those that are available don’t pay well. Try to take time off for hunting season — which used to be common — and you’ll find yourself out of work, Fornarotto said. “The economy is poor, it’s really poor,” he said.
As in so many other sectors of the modern economy, he sees a disparity between bigger gun shops in wealthy areas and little guys like him. “The everyday blue-collar worker who actually makes this country move is down — way down,” he said.
He blames President Obama, and he blames the Clintons. Add in fears about weakening gun rights, and there’s not much doubt how Fornarotto will vote.