NEEDLES, Calif. – The Old West desert town of Needles, Calif., is where the beleaguered Joad family crossed the Colorado River into California in John Steinbeck's classic novel "The Grapes of Wrath."
These days, Needles is gaining attention 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 "Second Amendment Sanctuary City." The vote had no immediate practical effect on how guns are treated in the city. Rather, the 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 sanctuary 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 "Second 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. "In our opinion they have violated the Second 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. "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," 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 Gov. 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. But most Needles residents buy their ammunition in neighboring Arizona because the nearest California stores are more than 100 miles away.
Terral, a longtime gun owner who fondly recalls hunting with his grandfather, said he was inspired after friends in Arizona told him they were steering clear of Needles. "They said basically it's because we're not going to disarm ourselves, and California won't accept our concealed weapons permits."