A day after his controversial call to arms set off intense debate over the role of armed citizens in maintaining public safety, Ulster County Sheriff Paul Van Blarcum is standing by his statement encouraging all properly licensed handgun owners and off duty police officers to carry weapons.
“It’s something I believe in,” said Van Blarcum on Friday. “I didn’t think it would turn into such a big deal, hopefully in a few days it will be over.”
On Thursday, Van Blarcum placed Ulster County squarely in the middle of the nationwide debate over gun control in the wake of recent mass shootings when he issued the press release. The statement, posted on the sheriff’s office Facebook page, urged licensed handgun owners to “take advantage of your legal right to carry a firearm.” The statement goes on to ask gun owners to ensure that they are “comfortable and proficient” with their firearms and well informed on state law regarding the carrying and use of weapons. Van Blarcum’s statement went on to urge all active-duty and retired police or peace officers to carry a weapon whenever they leave the house.
Van Blarcum said he drafted the message in response to a wave of mass shootings across the country. “It’s not only the California shooting, it’s all of them,” said Van Blarcum. “I just have to think that if there was someone with a weapon in those crowds some of these outcomes might have been different.”
Van Blarcum said that his thinking on the subject was influenced in part by his experience with the Hudson Valley Mall shooting. On Feb. 13, 2005, Robert Bonelli walked into the Town of Ulster shopping center and opened fire with an assault rifle, wounding two people. Van Blarcum said there were six off duty cops in the mall at the time of Bonelli’s rampage, but none was carrying a weapon.
Critics of concealed carry say that the presence of armed, but otherwise unprepared and untrained, civilians in an “active shooter” situation would more likely lead to chaos and casualties than a swift resolution. But Van Blarcum expressed confidence in Ulster County’s licensed handgun owners. He noted that many local civilian licensed gun carriers belonged to gun clubs and spent more time at the range than the 16 hours each year required of active law enforcement officers.
“A lot of our handgun owners in Ulster County probably shoot more than the average police officer who goes to the range twice a year,” said Van Blarcum.
Van Blarcum added that in a typical mass shooting, casualties mount quickly and in most cases the damage has been done before police arrive on the scene. In those cases, he said, the presence of an armed civilian can make all the difference.
“I want to encourage every [gun owner] to get as much training as they need to be comfortable with it,” said Van Blarcum. “And I’d encourage people, if they have that carry permit to be responsible with it and use it.”
Reaction to Van Blarcum’s statement was swift and exposed the yawning chasm between those who believe that the solution to mass shootings is stricter gun control and those who believe, as the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre stated in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre, that the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. The debate has raged on social media, where Ulster County was popping up near the top of trending news on Friday morning.
Van Blarcum said he’d received more email on the subject than he could keep up with. Most, he said, was supportive while some was “pretty nasty.” Critics of Van Blarcum’s stance have organized a protest for 4 p.m. today, Friday, Dec. 4 outside the Ulster County Law Enforcement Center on Route 32 in Kingston. Meanwhile, Van Blarcum said, he’s been inundated with media inquiries.
“It’s crazy, I had one place offer to send a car up for me to go to New York City,” said Van Blarcum. “I’m a low-key guy, I have no desire to go down there and be on TV. If they send someone up here I’ll talk to them.”
Low-key attitude notwithstanding, this is not the first time Van Blarcum has spurred controversy and debate. Last year he drew howls of protest from civil liberties groups and advocates for the poor when he instituted routine warrant checks at a security post manned by deputies inside Ulster County’s Department of Social Services. Van Blarcum defended the move as a common sense solution to clearing up the agency’s warrant list. Opponents called it an outrageous violation of civil liberties and stigmatizing to the poor. Van Blarcum ended the warrant checks after county lawmakers threatened to replace deputies with private sector security at county buildings.
Also on Thursday, Ulster County District Attorney added his voice to the discussion, expressing “complete confidence” in Van Blarcum. “Though I fully support our right to bear arms and to defend ourselves I am not convinced more guns in the hands of untrained or unskilled civilians is the answer and nor do I believe does the sheriff,” stated Carnright in his own Facebook post.
The DA called for caution and vigilance and added that people who aren’t trained or lack the skills to effectively respond to an active shooter situation shouldn’t make things worse. “Perhaps more than ever our response as a community should be cautioned and thoughtful,” stated Carnright. “Ulster County is blessed with an exceptionally trained and proficient law enforcement community. I would discourage any action where untrained or unskilled citizens create an opportunity for unintended tragedy which could pose risk not only to innocent citizens but to our own law enforcement personnel.”
The Thursday version of the story, by Dan Barton:
A day after a shocking and still-enigmatic shooting incident in San Bernardino, Calif. killed 14 – making it the worst mass shooting since 2013’s Sandy Hook massacre – Ulster County Sheriff Paul Van Blarcum posted a message on the sheriff’s office Facebook page asking those in Ulster who are licensed to have a handgun with them in public to start carrying.
“In light of recent events that have occurred in the United States and around the world I want to encourage citizens of Ulster County who are licensed to carry a firearm to [sic] PLEASE DO SO,” read Van Blarcum’s Thursday morning Facebook post.
“I urge you to responsibly take advantage of your legal right to carry a firearm. To ensure the safety of yourself and others, make sure you are comfortable and proficient with your weapon, and knowledgeable of the laws in New York State with regards to carrying a weapon and when it is legal to use it,” the post continued.
Van Blarcum also called on retired law enforcement personnel, who are typically allowed to carry a concealed weapon after they leave the force, to stay alert and be ready for trouble.
“I also want to remind all Police/Peace Officers both active duty and retired to please carry a weapon whenever you leave your house. We are the thin blue line that is entrusted in keeping this country safe, and we must be prepared to act at any given moment,” read the sheriff’s post.
Reaction to the sheriff’s statement on social media was immediate and at times passionate. In about two hours, the post had gotten over 4,100 Facebook likes and close to 6,400 shares. Some 500 comments were posted in the space of two hours, with the gun-control debate playing out all over the country erupting locally.
Wrote New Paltz Town Councilman Daniel Torres who like Van Blarcum is a Democrat, commented on Van Blarcum’s post, ” I am confused as to why the Ulster County Sheriff’s Office, whose job it is to protect people, would encouraging citizens to take up arms for their own safety.” (Over 100 responses were made to this, most of them critical, arguing, for instance, that the police can’t be everywhere. “A gun in your hand beats a cop on the phone,” posted Joe Forte.
Posted Andrew Cort, “Can’t believe how many adolescent Rambo-wannabees are already on this thread talking about how tough and ‘American’ they are. Please stop humoring them and inciting more of them!”
“Maybe we should vote [sic] Paul Van Blarkum for president of the United States,” posted Dave Gallagher.