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Nathan Dial pondered a question as he drove around Estancia, population 1,500, with a snub-nosed .357 on his right hip.
How many of the town’s residents own guns?
“I’ll lowball it and say 85 percent,” he said.
Dial, the Estancia mayor and an Army veteran who has developed a reputation for challenging state government leaders, made national headlines late last year when he imposed a rule requiring all residents who wish to attend town hall meetings to come armed.
He did so, he said, in response to New Mexico lawmakers voting to ban weapons of any kind in the state Capitol — a first for a building known for welcoming folks with firearms under New Mexico’s open carry laws. Dial later said he didn’t mean people entering the town hall must carry guns; they could come armed with their wits, knowledge, a Bible — anything to help them defend their rights.
The American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico didn’t see it that way. The organization responded to Dial’s move by threatening to sue his town if he didn’t withdraw the rule.
“I never thought I would get involved with fighting Santa Fe,” he said. “It just fell in place.”
For Dial, who ran unsuccessfully for a legislative seat in 2020, the fight is not one centered on political ideology or party loyalty. It’s about honoring the state constitution, which he noted allows New Mexicans to openly carry guns.
He said lawmakers’ ban on guns in the Capitol — which some said was necessary to protect the public, Capitol employees and themselves — was overreaching.
“To say in an open carry state you can’t carry in the state Capitol?” Dial said, incredulous.
His stand is not just based on protecting gun rights but all rights, he added.
“If they can make regulatory changes for the Second Amendment, when will they do it for the First Amendment?” he asked.
Dial is aware a legal battle will not help him or his town. Earlier this month, he and Estancia’s four-member board of trustees altered the resolution, reiterating its opposition to the weapons ban at the Capitol but no longer requiring residents to come to town meetings armed.
Instead, the resolution “encourages the residents of the Town of Estancia to be steadfast in the lawful and peaceful exercise of their individual freedoms while participating in matters of public interest and in the course of daily life.”
Dial said the move was to prevent a lawsuit. And it appears successful.
Maria Martinez Sánchez, deputy legal director of the ACLU of New Mexico, wrote in a recent email to The New Mexican, “The Town of Estancia has taken the wise step of rescinding its foolish policy of requiring individuals to be ‘legally armed’ in order to attend town meetings, thus, avoiding needless litigation that would have only harmed the town’s residents.
“Still,” she wrote, “there is no room in our state for these types of political stunts, which only serve to suppress the First Amendment rights of the people of Estancia and deter community members from engaging in the political process.”
Dial can compromise.
But when it comes to his stand against what he considers government authority, he’s got plenty of other battles.
‘That’s who I want to be’
Dial, who is in his early 50s, was born in Estancia, the seat of Torrance County. A photo of him at just 4 years old shows him smiling and posing with a cowboy hat on his head and a BB gun in his hand.
He grew up in a gun culture, where guns were tools to hunt, he said. He and other high-schoolers even made guns in shop class. His family’s background is steeped in military life.
“On my dad’s side, most of the males served,” he said. “I always knew I would serve.”
An iconic figure in a well-known movie role helped him make the decision. When he was in sixth grade, Dial saw the John Wayne film The Green Berets. Watching Wayne’s character, a Special Forces officer leading the Green Berets into battle in Vietnam, Dial recalled saying, “That’s who I want to be — that guy!”
Though he was, by his own account, skinny and short, he joined the Army in 1986 at the age of 17 and served until 2011 in an array of positions, including as a weapons sergeant.
He retired in 2011 and returned to Estancia to care for his aging dad and uncle. “We don’t put them in an old folks’ home,” he said of those who cared for him when he was young.
After they died, and with nothing better to do, he ran for mayor in the 2017 election and won. He stepped into the job in 2018 and ran for reelection unopposed in 2021.
He earns about $650 a month, he said.
His first priorities were addressing personnel issues and the fallout from the recent closing of the privately run prison just outside of town, which has since reopened and primarily holds migrants under the custody of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
The Torrance County Detention Facility, Dial said as he drove by it, is “the lifeblood” of Estancia and losing it would drain the town of much of its economic life.
His goal in his second term is to use federal and state infrastructure funds to upgrade the 1934 town hall, renovate the park and swimming pool and fix roads.
His reelection bid came a year after he aspired to win a higher office — a seat in the Legislature.
He ran as a Republican for the House District 70 position in 2020 and was soundly defeated in the general election by Democrat Ambrose Castellano of Serafina.
About a month before the election, the Republican Party of New Mexico filed a complaint on behalf of Dial with the Secretary of State’s Office, contending Castellano lived outside the district — instead residing in Pojoaque — and was ineligible to run. Castellano denied the allegation.
Dial said the case was thrown out because he didn’t have a lawyer and was told he was not following procedures.
He decided to run for the seat because he believed the problems he faced as mayor could best be addressed at the state level, he said.
In a few years, he added, he might run for the Senate.
‘A hands-on mayor’
Dial’s current dust-up with the state started early in 2019, when he showed up at the state Capitol with a century-old pistol in a holster on his hip. He sought clarification on new rules at the time banning guns at joint sessions of the Senate and House of Representatives. He said he’d often entered the Capitol with a gun and never encountered any pushback.
He is not anti-government, he said. But there’s a line that should not be crossed between state and local governments.
Or even the federal government.
He believes his police chief should have the right to run the president out of town, if necessary, he said.
He sees the divide between his view and the state’s not in terms of a Republican versus Democrat conflict, but one between rural and urban communities. He said he knows best how to deal with roadway, water and sewerage issues in his town and can probably fix them faster and cheaper than the state can.
Town Trustee Morrow Hall said Dial has a self-sufficient attitude of getting the job done.
“I’ve seen him with his irrigation boots down in the ditch fixing a water pipe with the rest of the maintenance crew,” Hall said of the mayor.
Still, Hall was the one trustee who did not support Dial’s original “armed” resolution. Calling Dial “a fine human being” and a “good” mayor, Hall said, “He wanted to require people to be legally armed, which I thought was just insane. And I told him I don’t vote for or support or wish to devote my time to insanity.”
Trustee Stella Chavez, who supported Dial’s resolution requiring people to come armed to meetings, said it was an issue of giving people the right to exercise their individual freedoms. “I’m all for gun rights. Everyone should have the right to carry a firearm,” she said.
Dial, she said, is “a good mayor, a hands-on mayor.” She said she appreciates that he studies the law and the state and federal constitutions before proposing or arguing a position for the town.
“You know he’s done his homework,” she said.
Regarding his penchant for studying issues, Dial referred to himself as “an idiot who tries to pay attention and read.”
He cited several areas in which the state has enough control to overstep his authority — such as its insistence the town pay to reseed right of ways that line county roads.
Tooling down a road he said belongs to both the town and county and is flanked by state-owned ditches, he threw his hands in the air.
“OK, so who’s in charge?” he asked. He shook his head. “These are small-town problems everywhere.”
If he were touring his town armed and saw some sort of incident requiring a police response, he said, he believes it would be his duty to step in.
But, he added, his sidearm is generally used to shoot just two things: rattlers and wild dogs.
Asked how many guns he owns, Dial flashed a smile and said, “More than one and less than 150.”
He’s not looking to pick a fight with state lawmakers during the current session, he said, but he likely will visit the Capitol at least once to request a copy of the weapons ban. If he shows up armed, he added, it will probably be with a no-longer-functioning historic handgun.
What he really wants to tell them, he said, is, “Just leave us alone.”
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