Patricia Cantrall, nicknamed the “Annie Oakley of Modoc County,” straps her .38 backward on her left hip. “I prefer the cross draw,” said the gregarious 65-year-old county supervisor and part-time cafe 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 the state surpasses Modoc.
According to state Department of Justice statistics, about one in 29 residents here has a concealed-weapons permit. That compares 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 only 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. But bearing arms here appears to have little to do with fear of crime or violent confrontations with humans.
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 like the Brass Rail, a family-style restaurant favored by local ranchers that serves up big hunks of lamb and carafes of red 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 to complain about the government in distant Sacramento, six hours by car. State antismoking regulations targeting bars are almost universally ignored. The county also claims California’s lowest median household income, lowest home property values and highest infant mortality rate.
This was the last territory relinquished to white settlers by local tribes. In 1872-73 it was the site of the last of the Indian wars fought in California and Oregon. The most famous incident in that conflict was the killing of Gen. Richard Canby by Modoc Indian leader Kintpuash, also known as Captain Jack. Kintpuash surprised Canby under a flag of truce, shooting the unarmed general with a concealed weapon.
For a time, what is now Modoc County was known as Canby and later as Summit. The Indian name eventually won out.
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 have shut down. The railroad dropped its payroll from nearly 500 people to just two full-time and several part-time roadbed maintenance workers. Many downtown 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, said Holloway, gives the handful of ranchers who run cattle on the federal and state land even more sway in county politics than they had in the past.
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 guns,” Estill said. He pointed to a visiting reporter and photographer: “It’s just like you have a pen and you have a camera.”
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 he encounters in the mountains.
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. Sheriff Mix says the county averages about one “questionable death a year, including suicide.”
A permit allows a person over 21, not previously convicted of a felony, to carry a concealed, short-barreled, loaded weapon anywhere in the state. In counties with fewer than 200,000 residents, the weapon may be openly displayed.
County Supervisor Cantrall, who serves as postmaster in the ranching community of Likely when she’s not working at the Likely Cafe, said she first obtained a concealed-weapons permit 22 years ago for protection when she traveled to San Francisco and Sacramento.
She said she also carries it when she rides horses in the mountains because, “I do not care to be dinner for a wonderful mountain lion.” So far, she said, she has used her weapon to kill snakes, coyotes and one very aggressive badger.
‘To Them It’s a Tool’
“People up here were born and raised with firearms,” said George Wistos, 70, owner of the Belligerent Duck, a gun and outdoor goods shop in Alturas. “To them it’s a tool.” Wistos said that lately he’s been selling a lot of lightweight handguns to women who jog alone along mountain trails.
Mix charges a $10 county fee for a concealed-weapons permit and biannual renewal. The sheriff, who is fair-skinned and built like a fire hydrant, sports a silver-barreled .44 magnum heavy enough to make a lighter man list.
When disputes erupt and tempers flare, as they did a few years ago on Rattlesnake Creek, Mix said, he is not afraid to confiscate guns to keep the peace. As often happens here, the Rattlesnake Creek fight was over water rights.
In 2000, cattle rancher Lawrence Ray, a relative newcomer, became enraged when the local water district manager came onto his land and, without asking, released the water from the dam above Ray’s property, which is bisected by Rattlesnake Creek.
After one of Ray’s cows got stuck in the resulting sea of mud and died, Ray threatened to send the water district manager home in a “pine box” if he ever came onto his property again.
Ray, 68, was charged with making a “terrorist” threat, and Mix, who used to shoot skeet with Ray on the ranch, ordered him to give up his private arsenal.
Interviewed on a recent afternoon, Ray said he did turn over a few of his weapons to the sheriff but left the remainder -- about 40 handguns, rifles and shotguns -- with his brother for safekeeping until the charges against him are settled.
“They aren’t going to take all my guns away from me,” Ray snorted. “I’ve had them my whole damn life.”