By Gabrielle Irvin
The sooty, unpolished wood floor in Dave's Firearms hasn't been refinished in years. Laid with random planks of different widths and lengths, it stretches across the small shop, supporting thinly stocked shelves that hold Hodgdon's Longshot Powder and Blackhawk! holsters. Safely guarded in a smudged glass case are Nighthawk Dominator and Falcon pistols. Along the shop's back wall lean Winchester and Benelli shotguns.
Although Dave's Firearms, in the country outskirts of east Urbana, remains stocked with shotguns, shooting targets and camouflage rifle slings, President Obama's recent gun control proposals have triggered a surge of firearms and ammunition sales, leaving Dave Costley's ammo shelves nearly bare because gun owners are buying ammunition in bulk, fearful of new weapon control laws.
To 58-year-old Dave and the men who frequent his store, the proposals threaten a long-ingrained way of life. To these men, guns are at the heart of a culture deeply rooted in their lives — a culture of hunting and shooting for sport, of independence and camaraderie.
Dave, as well as Tieje Gaylord and Aaron Fruhling, regulars at the shop, load their own firearm cartridges and shotgun shells. They love hunting and sport shooting. They love the crispness of early morning air. They love the friendships they create.
"When I was young it was the fun of the hunt," says Tieje, a 46-year-old skeet shooter and hunter. "It still is, but there's more to it. It's havin' a bunch of guy friends who're interested in what you're interested in, and just havin' a good time."
He also loves hanging out at Dave's, enjoys the banter and goofing.
"It's like a club," he says. "It's fun."
Dave is a large, balding man with gray hair and eyeglasses. As usual, today he wears beige cargo pants, brown leather Birkenstock work boots and a camouflage V-neck long-sleeved T-shirt. Before opening the gun shop in 2003, he simultaneously owned Sport 101, his first firearms store, and Wild Thang Cycles, a bicycle sales and repair shop in Urbana.
He figured that at 220 pounds he was destined to be a "way better shooter than a cyclist." He also couldn't find what he was looking for as a shooter: high-dollar sporting shotguns, sporting and trap reloading supplies, and specific firearms brands such as Caesar Guerini and Beretta. He thought, "Hell, this couldn't be too hard," and invested his money from the BMX business into a full-fledged firearms store.
"It's a passion to hunt or shoot competitions; to sell the guns is just a job," Dave says. "To me, to get up to go to work is OK. To get to go huntin' or shootin'? I'm up an hour before anybody, the alarm never has to be set."
Dave loves the competition and the cool morning breeze on his face. He enjoys the sounds of squawking feathered game. His shotgun is not just an accessory; it has become a part of him — a faint dark outline of the tip of his shotgun barrel is even imprinted on his right boot, where his gun rests when unloaded and broken open.
He was 12 when he got his first shotgun, a 20-gauge Mossberg. He'll always remember his first pheasant kill while hunting with his father, grandfather and uncle. It was the first time they had allowed him to carry a gun. As he walked slowly through the cornstalks, a pheasant flushed from under his feet and cackled its distinct, shrill cry.
"Shoot it!" his father hollered.
"I remember lifting the gun up, thinking, 'Man, that's a cool noise,' and BOOM, shot the bird."
Dave's Firearms smells of Gus, Dave's 9-year-old yellow Labrador, gun oil and aging wood. The checkout counter shelves are cluttered with firearms catalogs, old boxes of bullets and a hair-filled wooden dog brush. A gray trash can — decorated with brown coffee stains and chewing tobacco spit — stands tall behind the counter. From his stool behind that counter, Dave watches customers, talks bull with Tieje and Aaron, and feeds leftover treats to Gus. Except for BBQ, that is. It gives Gus gas really bad, mind-numbingly bad.
"Gus has always been very popular," says Aaron, a 53-year-old hunter and trap and skeet shooter. A short, bald man with a neatly trimmed goatee, camouflage pants and a blue Ameren sweatshirt, Aaron got his first BB gun when he was 10. At 14, he got his first shotgun, a Savage 12-gauge. He grew up on a farm in Ogden Township, where he and his family still gather on Easter and get the clay bird thrower out. He bought his son a 20-gauge shotgun when he was 10 years old.
"He'd shoot that gun till his cheek was purple," Aaron laughs, referring to the shotgun's bruising kick back when not seated just right on a person's shoulder.
He and Tieje shoot targets and hunt coyote and pheasant together. They've known each other for years and enjoy hunting coyote at their spot near Potomac.
"We always have a blast jokin' around and walkin'," Aaron says. Tieje helped Aaron remodel his kitchen. "And it's a pretty nice kitchen," Aaron says.
Aaron peruses Dave's near-empty ammo shelves and leans on the counter near the cash register.
"Hey, Dave, do you have any XD(M) clips?" he asks, looking to stock up on magazines for his Springfield XD(M) 9mm pistol.
"Expecting to get any anytime?"
"I'm hoping at some point and time, yeah," Dave replies with uncertainty.
"OK, if you get one "
"Set one aside for ya'?"
"Tell Tieje or something 'cause he's in here more than I am," Aaron jokes.
"I ain't tellin' him," Dave kids back. "He'll buy it for 20 bucks and sell it to you for 40."
"Nah, he treats me pretty good," Aaron says, actually serious for a change.
Tieje is a youthful man with short brown hair and a goatee. He sits on a stool at the counter and dangles his brown boots above the floor.
"I stop in here all the time," he says. "My wife gets off work two hours later than I do, and my girls are both grown up, so I stop in here and I hang out for a couple hours and go home."
At age 11, Tieje hunted raccoon, pheasant and rabbit with a middle-school buddy and his father. It was the thrill that hooked him: the thrill of trudging through the weeds, finding a quarry, having it jump and scurry or fly away. He bought his first brand-new gun, a Remington 870 12-gauge, when he was 19. He still shoots it when he goes pheasant hunting.
"It's not a fancy gun," he says. "I just like it. It's light. It's what I shoot the most as far as for hunting, and every time I pick it up it's the same thing. It's there. It's always there every fall when I go to get it out, and it's ready to go. It's the first one I bought, and I'll never get rid of it."
Dave, Tieje and Aaron load their own rifle cartridges and shotgun shells. "Custom load building," Dave calls it. The men want precision.
Dave loads specifically for his two .25 Winchester rifles. He controls the bullet weight, power charge and seating depth.
"If something screws up, it's nobody else's fault but mine," Dave says. "When I go shoot and I shoot a good score, it's because of me."
Tieje has a gun in his hand every weekend during the summer. He competes in sporting clays shooting competitions alongside his 21-year-old daughter, whom the men call "Darling Sarah." She began skeet shooting when she was about 15. Dave sold her her first shotgun and also employs her in the shop whenever she needs extra cash. Her high school senior picture — a black-and-white photo of her holding a shotgun and wearing a camouflage T-shirt — hangs on the wall near the checkout counter.
"Every time I come in here I learn something," Tieje says as he sits with Dave behind the counter. "I don't want to admit it, but I learn something. Not only do I consider Dave my friend, but the people who are in here my friends.
"It's neat to see guns come in and go out, and I pay attention to what they're talkin' about and I'm learnin', too. That's what's cool about this place. It's 'Cheers.' It's kinda like 'Cheers' with guns."
Dave considers the comparison to the once-popular barroom TV sitcom, laughs and agrees.
"It is a lot like that."
Gabrielle Irvin is a University of Illinois journalism student. This story was done in a spring semester version of Professor Walt Harrington's literary feature writing class. Funding came from the Marajen Stevick Foundation.