The tradition of conservative gestures to “own the libs” or defy “political correctness” did not begin with Donald Trump or his proudly offensive MAGA folk. Defiance of norms has been particularly popular among gun enthusiasts who like to frighten their political enemies with displays of their shooting irons accompanied by visibly itchy trigger fingers. Way back in 1982, when the Chicago suburb of Morton Grove, Illinois, passed an ordinance banning handgun possession within its boundaries, the suburb of Atlanta named Kennesaw (a few miles from where I went to high school, as it happens) promptly passed its own ordinance requiring gun ownership of all its households.
Kennesaw was quickly adopted as a sort of mascot municipality by the Gun Owners of America, the extremist group which considers the NRA a bunch of liberal squishes and really embraces mandatory gun ownership as a good idea. It used to stand out back in the days when people resisted gun control on grounds that it interfered with the right to protect their homes or hunt. Nowadays, the Gun Owners’ concept of fighting gun violence and resisting socialism by arming every right-thinking American to the teeth is much more popular. Still, Kennesaw has never really tried to enforce its gun-ownership law, so its ordinance is best understood as hippie-punching right-wing theater.
Upon reading about Needles, California’s efforts to be recognized as a “sanctuary city” for guns and ammo, I figured the same psychology was in play. It is, after all, an inversion of one of the stereotypes about godless liberal coastal Californians with their encouragement of swarthy hordes of criminal immigrants who are pouring over the border to kill and rape and vote Democrat. The Los Angeles Times has the story:
Last month [city leaders] 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.
But as is the case with a lot of “populist” conservative causes like this one, there’s a backstory that reflects chronic economic distress as well as yahoo proto-fascism. Needles is one of those Route 66 cities that progress bypassed when the interstates were built. It was hammered in the Great Recession and has lost its last grocery store. What’s left of the city leadership thinks exempting itself from California’s relatively strict gun laws could help financially:
[Town officials] 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 …
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.
That seems outrageous to cross-border visitors and Needles locals alike:
[City Councilman Tim] 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.”
Yes, there is a distinct cultural element to this “idea” for reviving Needles’s economy. But it does sound like its leaders are open to just about anything. Its one big thriving industry right now is the recently legalized cannabis market:
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.”
It’s unlikely that the Democratic-controlled legislature in distant Sacramento will smile upon efforts by Needles (and some similar conservative towns) to create their own little red-state arsenals, particularly in the wake of the recent gun killings in equally distant Gilroy, California. So maybe the folks just want some publicity and maybe a bit of tourist trade from random Trump fans and gun enthusiasts:
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.
Even if that means making Needles a shrine to death. That is indeed sad.