Gun owners declare a 'sanctuary city' in Southern California

Needles, California, a former railroad town, wants to make it easier for registered gun owners to cross into the state. This effort reflects a national trend found in more conservative areas that are resisting tougher state gun laws. 

John Locher/AP
A motorcyclist drives by a sign along the old Route 66 in Needles, California, on June 27, 2019. The town, which sits on the border between Arizona and California, recently labeled itself a '2nd Amendment Sanctuary City.'

The Old West desert town of Needles, California, is where the beleaguered Joad family crossed the Colorado River into California in John Steinbeck's classic novel "The Grapes of Wrath" and was a boyhood home to "Peanuts" creator Charles Schulz.

These days, Needles is gaining notoriety for another reason. Leaders have declared it a "sanctuary city" for people who believe California's strict gun laws have encroached too much on their constitutional right to keep and bear arms.

The City Council in the town of 5,000 that borders Arizona and is a few miles from the southern tip of Nevada last month unanimously declared Needles a "2nd Amendment Sanctuary City." The vote had no immediate practical impact on how guns are treated in the city. Rather, the Needles city attorney was directed to draw up a resolution asking the California Legislature to allow licensed gun owners in other states to carry their firearms in town.

This effort is part of a national trend of officials in more conservative areas resisting tougher state gun laws. In New Mexico, more than two dozen sheriffs in predominantly rural areas vowed to avoid enforcement, equipped with supportive "Second Amendment Sanctuaries" resolutions from county commissions. In Washington, sheriffs in a dozen counties said earlier this year that they won't enforce the state's sweeping new restrictions on semi-automatic rifles until the courts decide whether they are constitutional.

The sponsor of the "2nd Amendment Sanctuary City" measure in Needles, City Councilman Tim Terral, acknowledged it could be a long shot to go anywhere in California's overwhelmingly Democratic Legislature, noting the title is a poke in the eye to places like Los Angeles, San Francisco, and the state itself, which have declared themselves sanctuaries for people living in the country illegally.

"They want to pick and choose what they follow," he said. "It's 'We're going to shield this person, but we're going to go after that person.' And in our opinion they have violated the 2nd Amendment of the Constitution in many ways."

But don't get Needles wrong, said he and other officials. They don't want any would-be gunslingers sauntering down Historic Route 66 brandishing six-shooters.

"We're not crazy," said City Manager Rick Daniels, chuckling. "We're not proposing that everyone have a gun on their hip or open carry or anything like that."

What the city wants is to make it easier for visitors to this roadside stop on the way to Las Vegas and Los Angeles to not worry they could face a felony arrest if a traffic stop turns up a loaded but legally registered gun from outside California.

"We have had that happen," Mr. Daniels said. "Now not a lot. Not often. But occasionally that occurs."

The city also wants the state legislature to tweak a law that took effect Monday. It requires gun owners to undergo a background check to purchase ammunition and outlaws people from bringing ammunition into California from other states. California Governor Gavin Newsom and other Democratic leaders say that the state's new ammunition laws will save lives by helping authorities discover so-called ghost guns that aren't registered with the state.

Most Needles residents buy their ammunition in neighboring Arizona because the nearest California stores are more than 100 miles away. City leaders want residents to be able to continue purchasing in neighboring states.

That and a request that California recognize concealed carry permits from other states will be spelled out in another resolution the City Council plans to adopt at its meeting on July 9.

Mr. Terral, a longtime gun owner who fondly recalls hunting with his grandfather, has reached out to state officials who are waiting to see exactly what the city adopts on Tuesday.

He said he was inspired after friends in Arizona told him they were steering clear of Needles.

"I'm asking them, 'Why won't you come out to a barbecue at my house? Or why won't you come out here and buy X, Y, or Z because we can sell it cheaper,'" he said. "They said basically it's because we're not going to disarm ourselves, and California won't accept our concealed weapons permits."

Needles, founded in 1883, was once a booming railroad hub and a gateway to California because of its location on Route 66, which before the interstate highway system was the main east-west thoroughfare for the region. Schulz spent part of his childhood in Needles and made it the home of Snoopy's brother Spike in his Peanuts comic strip.

But as railroading declined and interstates relegated Route 66 to a back road, Needles' fortunes declined. Now every visitor dollar is crucial to a town where summertime temperatures routinely hit 110 degrees F.

So far, Mr. Terral said, everyone he's talked to supports the resolution. If there is local opposition, it's neither vocal nor visible as an Associated Press reporter's calls to more than a dozen businesses produced not a word of dissent.

One supporter did note, however, that including the words "Sanctuary City" unnerved some. Mr. Daniels said that may be tweaked as well.

"They thought [Mr. Terral] was trying to bring a whole lot of illegal immigrants to the city and give them gun rights," said Cheryl Luell, who owns The Healing Center marijuana dispensary, one of Needles' biggest businesses. "I've explained it to at least seven people, and once you explain it to them and they understand it they are in favor."

This story was reported by The Associated Press. John Rogers reported from Los Angeles.

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