NEEDLES, Calif. —
The blistering sun hung high above the barren landscape, 118 degrees of scatter-the-critters hot, as Tim Terral loaded a magazine into his 9-millimeter pistol.
He narrowed his eyes, fixing his gaze on a target before a succession of pops cut through the silence. Bull’s-eye.
Satisfied, Terral wiped a bead of sweat off his brow and cocked his head to the side, a coy smile spreading across his slender face.
“I don’t miss much,” he crowed.
Today, his attention was focused on a small shooting target. But Terral has his eye on a larger one: California’s tough gun control laws.
Last month, other city leaders followed the Needles councilman’s suggestion and declared this town along the Colorado River a “sanctuary city” for the 2nd Amendment.
The collision of liberal and conservative buzzwords was meant to be a poke in the eye to the Golden State — the heart of the liberal “resistance” against a president voters in Needles overwhelmingly supported in 2016. And likely will again in 2020. This conservative small town is part of California, but also quite apart from it. Those big-city politicians making laws in Sacramento, many people here are convinced, don’t give one damn about a place like Needles.
In the coming months, city officials hope to somehow cajole the state to allow Needles and possibly other border towns to be exempt from rules on purchasing ammunition, which would allow people here to buy ammo from out of state, and honor concealed carry permits for people who have obtained them outside California.
“For so long we’ve had to deal with the laws as they are,” said Mayor Jeff Williams. “It was time to stand up and say, ‘Enough.’”
What Needles wants would seem a tough ask in a state with widespread support for gun control — and never more so than after now-familiar mass shootings, like the one that rocked the Northern California town of Gilroy on Sunday. A gunman at the Gilroy Garlic Festival killed three people — including a 6-year-old boy and a 13-year-old girl — before being shot dead. A dozen other people were injured, including some who are fighting for their lives.
On Monday, California Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra said the investigation into the shooting may determine that the shooter in Gilroy broke a California law by purchasing the weapon in Nevada and bringing it into California.
“That weapon could not be sold in California. That weapon cannot be imported into the state of California,” he said. “There is a very strong likelihood, as we develop the evidence, that the perpetrator in this particular case, violated California law, on top of the crimes of homicide.”
But for officials in Needles, taking such a pro-gun stance offers a means to save a sporadically struggling town.
“We do feel neglected,” said Rick Daniels, the town’s city manager: “It’s easy to craft laws with your personal framework in mind and I don’t think there’s enough consideration about how those decisions affect small rural towns.”
Across the Colorado River in Arizona, towns are friendlier to businesses, and boast lower taxes and looser regulations on many consumer items, including firearms, Needles officials argue. This puts the California town at a severe economic disadvantage, Williams said.
From its rail depot origins dating to 1883 to its place on historic Route 66, Needles — nicknamed “the Gateway to California” — has long been a stop for travelers on their journey somewhere else.
The fictional Joad family in John Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath” made Needles their first stop in California. In the 1940 film adaptation of the novel, the Oklahomans gazed at the town just over the glistening Colorado River, dubbing it “the land of milk and honey.”
For a time it was, locals say.
Needles was the first place crews swapped out freight trains headed east out of Los Angeles — a big boon for the town at the time. But over the years the railroad cut the number of train workers and those jobs vanished.
The completion of Interstate 40 in the early 1970s also meant travelers were no longer traversing Route 66. They no longer stopped in Needles and shopped at businesses here like they had in the past. People nevertheless counted it a blessing when the town snagged three exits off the 40.
The Great Recession hit and Needles struggled to recover in a way that feels particular for small towns.
“L.A. is just going to survive. They have too many people not to survive,” Terral said. “Small towns don’t rebound as quickly.”
Needles’ only grocery store shuttered in 2014. It was replaced by a 99 Cents Only store. Last year it too closed its doors. The two-story movie theater, which opened in 1930 to some of the first talkies, has been empty for decades.
A handful of businesses still dot old Route 66 as it winds through the dusty downtown past a shuttered burger joint and motels turned vacant lots.
Weathered Craftsman homes with broken windows — still dressed with tattered curtains or boarded up —sit empty. At least one has been red-tagged for more than a year.
Roughly a quarter of residents live below the poverty line, and as jobs and resources left, so did many people.
“You’re not going to stay somewhere you can’t survive,” Terral said.
When cannabis began to emerge as a booming business in the state several years ago, Needles seized the opportunity. Marijuana has been a lifeline for the town.
The city has approved 82 permits for cannabis businesses since 2015. In 2016, Needles voters largely supported a state ballot measure that legalized the recreational use of cannabis. The weed industry in Needles has grown exponentially since then.
The city’s 10% cannabis tax, approved by a wide margin of voters in 2012 when marijuana was legal only for medicinal use, added nearly $1.2 million to city coffers last year. That money, officials say, has been pivotal in funding improvement projects.
At the Wagon Wheel, the city’s oldest restaurant, a souvenir shop displays license plates with the city’s unofficial nickname — Weedles —and glasses adorned with marijuana leaves and pot puns. A drinking glass emblazoned with the state flag and a marijuana leaf reads “Needles, CA. Watch us grow.”
Vertical Cos., a large cannabis producer headquartered in Agoura Hills, has purchased dozens of acres in Needles over the last two years. It was drawn to the town not only for its openness to the industry, but also its cheap electricity and proximity to the Colorado River, a necessary water supply.
“For so long there was really no economy to speak of in Needles. Now with cannabis there’s houses being built, there’s people coming to this area, there’s moves being made,” said Christopher Brooks, a lead cultivation specialist at Vertical Cos.
The company has already built a large campus on the edge of town and has plans to turn an old Kentucky Fried Chicken on Route 66 into a kitchen for cannabis-infused candies and baked goods.
The thinking behind the loosening gun laws isn’t much different from town officials’ view on cannabis. They contend that exempting Needles from certain gun laws might encourage residents in Arizona and Nevada to visit the town and spend money.
Another contention is that it’s illegal for Californians to purchase ammunition in other states. The closest in-state gun shops to Needles are 100 miles to the south in Blythe or more than 140 miles away in Barstow.
“It’s just ludicrous to have to go that far to buy a bullet,” Williams said.
California also does not recognize concealed carry permits issued outside of the state, so residents from Arizona and Nevada have to disarm before they cross the state line.
Terral said in June he tried to host a barbecue and invited a friend who lives just a few miles away in open-carry Arizona. Terral said the man told him he wouldn’t show up because he didn’t want to take off his gun.
The councilman invoked an analogy that would seem irrational to many in a state where support for gun control is strong.
“It sounds silly that they don’t want to take their gun off, but you know what, if Arizona had a law saying that I’m not allowed to wear shoes it would be the same thing,” Terral said. “I don’t want to take my shoes off when I cross the border.”
Needles officials have reached out to other small cities in California to see if they’d be willing to enact similar pro-gun resolutions.
In Tehachapi , a city of more than 12,000 nestled between the San Joaquin Valley and the Mojave Desert in Kern County, city officials last week directed staff to study the feasibility of a similar move.
“We have big cities around our state that are continuing to dictate to the rest of our smaller cities what they feel we should do,” said Tehachapi Councilman Kenneth Hetge. “If you’re a law-abiding citizen and your rights are being chipped away at, we need to speak up … and get some accountability out of Sacramento.”
Convincing other small, largely conservative towns to follow the Needles example is one thing. But convincing lawmakers in a state leading the fight against President Trump and an administration that likewise seems at war with California is another.
Assemblyman Jay Obernolte (R-Big Bear Lake) plans to introduce legislation in December that would allow individual cities in California to choose whether they want to acknowledge out-of-state concealed carry permits. He’s not sure whether the legislation will address out-of-state ammo sales, which involves a more complex legal issue, he said.
“This is what we call in the Legislature a heavy lift,” Obernolte said. “It’s going to take some convincing. Typically, what’s more likely to pass is more restriction rather than something that allows local control.”
Terral himself acknowledges the slim odds. But he’s determined to try. This isn’t just about sticking it to liberals. This about keeping Needles alive, he said.
“If you’re not growing,” Terral said, “you’re dying.”