California county has well-armed population

One in 29 residents has concealed-weapon permit

October 03, 2004|By Rone Tempest | Rone Tempest,LOS ANGELES TIMES

ALTURAS, Calif. - Patricia Cantrall, nicknamed the "Annie Oakley of Modoc County," strapped her .38 backward on her left hip. "I prefer the cross draw," said the 65-year-old county supervisor and part-time waitress.

Cantrall and about 270 fellow residents of this sparsely populated corner of northeastern California routinely carry concealed handguns. When it comes to packing heat - at least legally - no other county in California surpasses Modoc.

According to state Department of Justice statistics, about one in 29 residents here has a concealed-weapons permit, compared with one in 800 residents for the rest of the state.

Modoc County issues almost as many permits as Los Angeles County - which has more than 50 times more people. Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca has approved 377 permits, mostly for judges, prosecutors, public defenders and retired federal agents.

Modoc County Sheriff Bruce Mix says he feels comfortable with the high number of guns because he knows most of the county's 9,400 residents.

"I pretty much know who is reliable and who is not," said Mix, 57, the head lawman and coroner here since 1988.

Besides, Mix said, he doesn't have enough deputies to adequately patrol the vast reaches of woods, desert and lava fields that cover the county's 3,944 square miles.

Mix said he believes everybody who lives in his county has a constitutional right to self-protection.

Often, said Undersheriff Mark Gentry, people seek to arm themselves before venturing to large California cities. "Someone will come in," said Gentry, "and say, `I'm going to San Diego, I need a gun.'"

Originally part of the Utah Territory and later transferred to the Nevada Territory, Modoc was one of the last areas annexed by what is now California. It can seem as though people are still adjusting to the arrangement.

The motto of Alturas, the county seat, is "Where the West Still Lives."

Here, cowboys haven't traded in their horses for all-terrain vehicles. Many of the region's settlers were Basque sheep herders; their customs still live on in places such as the Brass Rail, a family-style restaurant favored by local ranchers that serves up big hunks of lamb and carafes of Spanish wine.

The largest newspaper serving the community comes from Twin Falls, Ore. The local cable sports network follows the Seattle Mariners.

Alfalfa farmers gather at the Wagon Wheel cafe for breakfast and complain about the government in Sacramento, about six hours away by car.

State anti-smoking regulations targeting bars are almost universally ignored.

The county also claims California's lowest median household income, its lowest home property values and its highest infant mortality rate.

This was the last territory relinquished to white settlers by local tribes. In 1872 and 1873, it was the site of the last of the Indian wars fought in California and Oregon.

But while an older West lives on here, it's not exactly thriving. Alturas and the surrounding area have gone through several decades of hard times.

The sawmills that used to employ hundreds of people have shut down. The railroad dropped its payroll from nearly 500 employees to just two full-time and several part-time roadbed maintenance workers. Many storefronts are boarded up, and the dilapidated movie theater is open only on weekends.

Without the working-class population that once made this a Democratic Party stronghold, said Modoc Record editor and Alturas native Rick Holloway, the county has become increasingly conservative.

About half the local jobs today are with the state and federal government, primarily the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management. The decline of the railroad and sawmills, Holloway said, gives the handful of ranchers who run cattle on the federal and state land even more sway in county politics than before.

In the Surprise Valley, across the Warner range from Alturas, John Estill, 45, is a sixth-generation Californian and owner of the sprawling Bare Ranch. The property, which includes thousands of acres of deeded land in California and Nevada and holds grazing permits to more than a million acres in the surrounding hills and desert, is one of the biggest in the state.

"Everybody up here has gun," Estill said.

Estill supplies guns to shepherds he brings in on special immigration visas from Peru to manage his sheep in the high mountain ranges. As he spoke, ranch hand Duane Herbert pulled up in a pickup, wearing a broad, flat-brimmed hat and a .32 Magnum on his hip. Herbert said he uses his gun to kill rattlesnakes, coyotes and other creatures.

Records kept by the state attorney general's office indicate that violent crimes occur here at less than one-third the rate in Los Angeles County. According to FBI statistics, there was only one homicide in Modoc County from 1993 through 2002. Mix says the county averages about one "questionable death a year, including suicide."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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