The week after his controversial call to arms set off intense debate, both locally and across the nation, over the role armed citizens might play 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, December 4. “I didn’t think it would turn into such a big deal. Hopefully in a few days it will be over.”
The previous day, Van Blarcum had 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’s 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, most recently last Wednesday’s San Bernardino, California incident, where a Muslim husband-and-wife team who were both apparently radicalized took 14 lives before being killed in a hail of police bullets. “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 his thinking on the subject was influenced in part by his experience with the Hudson Valley Mall shooting some 10 years ago. On Feb. 13, 2005, Robert Bonelli walked into the Town of Ulster shopping center and opened fire with an assault rifle, wounding two people, one of them seriously. 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.”
Support, criticism immediately follow
Reaction to Van Blarcum’s statement was swift and passionate, 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.
Hours after Van Blarcum’s statement appeared online, Ulster County District Attorney Holley Carnright 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.”
In New Paltz, psychotherapist Doree Lipson said her “strong emotional reaction to Van Blarcum’s post led her to organize a protest against the “gun-loving sheriff.” Originally planned for Friday outside the Ulster County law Enforcement Center, Lipson later called off the event, saying she was frightened by some of the more visceral reactions on social media and worried that “some extremist” might target it.
Lipson said she remains unsettled by the sheriff’s remarks. “It felt like the wrong move for someone in a position of power,” said Lipson. “He should find ways for all of us to come together, not instill fear.”
Bill Schirmer, a Saugerties Town Board member and past president of the Saugerties Fish and Game Club had a different take on Van Blarcum’s call to arms. Like Van Blarcum, Schirmer said that the vast majority of concealed carry permit holders he knew were proficient with firearms and are well aware of the heavy responsibility that comes with carrying a weapon. Schirmer said while he was aware that armed civilians could pose certain risks, including the possibility of being mistaken by police for a gunman in a mass shooting situation, he also saw lifesaving potential.
“Generally, anyone predisposed to carrying a handgun is someone who shoots pretty often and is comfortable with a firearm,” said Schirmer. “They don’t have the same level of training as a police officer, but if they can return fire and take out a perpetrator early on, it could save a lot of lives.”
More harm than good?
National gun control groups, however, say that the “good guy with a gun” scenario is rare and is far outweighed by gun suicides, accidents and murders. Using data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (which is barred by federal law from conducting its own research on gun violence) the pro gun-control Violence Policy Center conducted a study which found much higher rates of gun deaths in states like Louisiana and Mississippi with lax gun control laws than states like New York and Massachusetts, which have more stringent statutes. In another study, the group analyzed FBI data from 2012 and found just 259 justifiable homicides using firearms compared to 8,342 criminal homicides by gun the same year. Another Violence Policy Center study, “Concealed Carry Killers,” documented 579 unlawful shooting incidents by concealed carry permit holders since 2007. The incidents included 29 mass shootings resulting in 139 deaths, 17 murders of police officers and 48 murder-suicides.
“Study after study after study shows that the more guns you have out there, the more things can go wrong,” said Leah Gunn Barrett of New Yorkers Against Gun Violence. “That’s the bottom line.”