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.