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On The Front Lines

On The Front Lines

Photo credit: Damian Strohmeyer

This feature appears in the March ‘16 issue of NRA America’s 1st Freedom, one of the official journals of the National Rifle Association.

Sheriff Paul Van Blarcum is a big, gray bear of a guy with calm eyes that you can tell have beheld every part of humanity a cop can witness in 40 years of service. Nevertheless, he says he didn’t see the attacks on him coming. 

Just after the San Bernardino, Calif., terrorist murders, Sheriff Van Blarcum publicly asked all his deputies to carry while off-duty and he wrote in a Facebook post: “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 please do so.”

The local media picked up Sheriff Van Blarcum’s call for help. Then came the phone calls and emails. Most, he says, were from people reaching out to thank him, but a small minority were full of hate and name-calling.

“Many of the emails had the same wording,” Sheriff Van Blarcum said. “I found it was language taken from an anti-gun group verbatim.” He said some of the messages were so vile that he wouldn’t let a child see those emails or hear those voicemails. 

Still, he answered all 300 emails and as many phone calls—even the nastiest ones—with sober, unemotional reasoning. “There was no getting through to some of them,” he said dolefully with a shake of his head, “but I tried to point out to them that I was being practical, not political.”

After his experience in the vortex of this constitutional issue, I wanted to find out what Sheriff Van Blarcum had learned. What would he now tell other sheriffs about reaching out to gun-owning citizens? What advice does he now have for citizens who take the right and responsibility of self-defense seriously?

When I arrived at his office in Ulster County, about 90 minutes north of New York City, I found a straight-talking cop who was clearly surprised with the depravity of the anti-gun side of the debate.

Sheriff Van Blarcum said working with citizens is common sense. He then explained what drove this point of view home. 

“In 2005 we had a mass murderer target the Hudson Valley Mall here in Ulster County,” Van Blarcum said. “Thankfully, he only wounded two people, though he shot about 60 rounds. But what grabbed me was that there were six off-duty police officers who just happened to be in the mall when this disturbed individual decided to murder people, but not one of the off-duty officers was carrying a gun. I want my deputies armed at all times. We are there to protect and serve whether on duty or off.

“But we can’t be everywhere. So I look around and see we have about 10,000 people with permits to carry in this county of about 180,000. I think the people that are out there who do carry concealed right now are at least as proficient with their weapons as police officers are. Actually, my deputies have to qualify with their pistols twice a year and for many of them that’s all the shooting they do; whereas, people who chose to carry are typically into guns, so they shoot more and are probably even better with their weapons than most cops are.” 

Sheriff Van Blarcum added: “It took four minutes for police to get to where the terrorists struck in San Bernardino, and that’s a very fast response time. Still, four minutes is a long time for a terrorist to have unchallenged. If someone in that room had a handgun, it might have turned out better.”

I say to him, “You trust the average American.”

Sheriff Van Blarcum nods and leans on his arms over his desk as he says, “In my 40 years in law enforcement I’ve never had to arrest a person with a concealed-carry permit for using their handgun unlawfully. These are good people. It makes sense to ask them to help.”

I replied that I’ve yet to interview anyone in law enforcement who has arrested a person with a permit to carry because the person was using his or her gun unlawfully. He nodded, saying that statistically permit holders basically don’t commit crimes.... Some of the messages were so vile that he wouldn’t let a child see those emails or hear those voicemails.

This started me thinking: Those opposed to the right to bear arms should be compelled to answer, in a free republic—a nation with a Bill of Rights that restricts the government from infringing on basic human liberties—why they don’t trust the average person. After all, if they are certain that the average American citizen isn’t trustworthy enough to carry a historically legal, safe and very common mechanical instrument, how can they trust people to drive, or even to vote?

The Issue Is Morally Clear

“We’re partners with the public in crime prevention,” Sheriff Van Blarcum said. He then noted that this is increasingly the case because more citizens are getting concealed-carry permits than ever before.

To put this in perspective, consider a study conducted by the Crime Prevention Research Center (CPRC), which found that the number of Right-to-Carry permits increased from 4.6 million in 2007 to more than 12.8 million in 2015. The National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), the trade association for firearms manufacturers, also confirmed that the number of people with permits to carry has surpassed 12 million in the United States. And this doesn’t count all the people who carry in the seven states that now have “permitless carry” (also known as “constitutional carry”) laws that do not require law-abiding citizens to acquire a permit to practice their right to keep and bear arms.

According to the FBI, in 2011 there were about 700,000 police officers in the U.S. Assuming the number of officers has remained stable, then today those with Right-to-Carry permits outnumber officers by about 17-to-1. Again, this doesn’t count those people in Vermont, Wyoming and other states who can, and do, legally carry without a permit. 

Given these facts, it’s clear that the odds of a person who carries finding him or herself in or near a scene where an act of terror or mass murder is occurring are getting statistically more likely. This, of course, doesn’t take into account the fact that terrorists and mass murderers tend to target disarmed people—though this acknowledgment puts an exclamation point on the argument that the government should get out of the way of law-abiding citizens’ constitutional rights so we can defend ourselves and each other. 

The number of people taking this responsibility is growing fast. For example, the CPRC determined that more than 1.7 million new permits were issued in 2014, which represents a 15.4-percent increase over the number issued in 2013. Women are also getting more concealed-carry permits than ever before. Since 2007, the CPRC found that permits for women have increased by 270 percent while permits for men increased by 156 percent.

As you consider these trends, it’s always worth noting that as this surge in Right-to-Carry permits has been taking place, the murder and violent crime rates have been steadily falling. 

As a result, the facts clearly show that Sheriff Van Blarcum’s position was made on sound footing. In fact, the pendulum seems to be swinging his way on this critical issue. Even Cathy Lanier—the police chief in Washington, D.C., who is hardly pro-gun—told Anderson Cooper on CBS News’ “60 Minutes” last November, “If you’re in a position to try and take a gunman down, to take the gunman out, it’s the best option for saving lives before police can get there.” Lanier, however, opposes D.C. residents right to carry a gun, so she is advocating unarmed resistance to an armed foe. It makes anyone with common sense wonder, that if she found herself unarmed in a place with an armed murderer, if she’d be hoping, praying that an armed good guy was there to help try to “take the gunman out.”

Sheriffs Want Your Help

Sheriff Van Blarcum isn’t the only law enforcement officer touting good guys with guns. The New York State Sheriffs’ Association, in fact, stood up in opposition to a gun ban and more that was rushed through the state Legislature in 2013. So did a majority of sheriffs in Colorado and Washington state. Sheriffs are typically elected to office. They are directly accountable to their constituents—police chiefs, in comparison, are more often appointed by a mayor or governor. Thankfully, sheriffs are typically tasked with processing concealed-carry permits.

“... We, as armed citizens, can mitigate the damage.”Other examples of pro-freedom and pro-Second Amendment sheriffs can be found all over the country.

After the San Bernardino terrorist attack, Florida’s Brevard County Sheriff Wayne Ivey said, “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. If you’re a person who is legally licensed to carry a firearm, now is the time more than ever to realize that you, and you alone, may very well be the first line of defense for you and your family.” 

In Boone County, Ky., Sheriff Michael A. Helmig went on Facebook last Dec. 6 to say: “I have reminded my current and retired deputy sheriffs of their responsibility to carry their firearms while off-duty. I would also like to remind the people who have applied, been trained, and issued a license to carry a Concealed Deadly Weapon (CCDW) that they also have a responsibility to carry their firearm, which they are proficient with, for the safety of themselves and others.”

In Stephens County, Okla., Sheriff Wayne McKinney said on Facebook: “As your sheriff, I encourage all who are legally eligible and trained to carry concealed weapons to do so. I do not want any of us to be helpless victims if we should fall under attack. We may never be able to stop someone from attempting to carry out a violent attack, but we, as armed citizens, can mitigate the damage.”

Meanwhile, sheriffs in three Missouri counties—Laclede, St. Clair and Vernon—responded to the San Bernardino attack by lowering the cost of applying for concealed-carry permits.

Laclede County Sheriff Wayne Merritt said, “The government has already said they can’t keep track of all these home-grown terrorists, so we can’t be everywhere at the same time, so people have to be able to defend themselves.”

A few years ago, Sheriff David Clarke Jr. of Milwaukee County, Wis., chose to ask the residents of Milwaukee County for this kind of help. He went to a radio studio and recorded a series of public-information spots. On one radio spot, Sheriff Clarke said: “With officers laid off and furloughed, simply calling 911 and waiting is no longer your best option. You could beg for mercy from a violent criminal, hide under the bed or you could fight back. But are you prepared? Consider taking a certified safety course on handling a firearm so you can defend yourself until we get there. You have a duty to protect yourself and your family. We’re partners now. Can I count on you?”

Sheriff Clarke says many experiences taught him to ask citizens for help. For example: “A woman in Milwaukee was being viciously beaten at a bus stop by a former boyfriend,” Clarke said. “A guy driving home from work saw the attack and stopped. He confronted the attacker and demanded he stop. The ex-boyfriend started walking toward the good Samaritan. So the citizen pulled his self-defense handgun out and just like that the attacker ran. No shots were fired. There is no statistic to measure what happened. But that girl was saved. Now I ask, would that good Samaritan have stopped and confronted the attacker if he didn’t have a self-defense gun?”

Sheriff Mike Lewis of Wicomico County, Md., is another sheriff who has spoken out in favor of armed self-defense. He says he once nearly lost his life because a citizen didn’t have a carry permit.

In 1996, Sheriff Lewis pulled over a man named Keith Hill for speeding. Lewis was then a sergeant in the Maryland State Police. Lewis smelled marijuana and ordered Hill out of his car. Hill got out, but when Lewis found thousands of dollars and packets of marijuana, Hill attacked Sheriff Lewis. As he began to wrestle with Hill, what flashed through Lewis’ mind was his friend, Edward Plank, a trooper who had been killed by a cocaine runner on the same highway just a few months before.

Hill began trying to take Sheriff Lewis’ pistol. As they fought in the gravel beside the road, motorists were passing by. One stopped and watched. She later told Lewis, “I thought, ‘Damn, we’re going to lose another cop.’ I wanted to help, and I had my gun with me, but the state wouldn’t allow me to get a permit for it even though I’d never committed a crime. I didn’t want to get in trouble.”

She watched as Hill and Lewis rolled into a ravine. “We were in a clench, just breathing heavy,” Lewis says. “I shouted at him, ‘Man, it’s just pot; it’s not worth it.’”

Hill finally broke away and ran into a housing development. Lewis followed. Each time Lewis got to a corner of a house, he had to slow down and approach carefully. He didn’t want to be jumped, maybe killed. This gave Hill the opportunity to loop around through the development and get back to his car.

Lewis got to the road just as Hill jumped into his car. Hill started the car, gunned the engine and aimed the vehicle right at Lewis. Lewis aimed and fired, and the bullet smashed through the car’s windshield and struck Hill in the chest. The car went off the road and stopped in a ditch. Hill died a few minutes later.

“Hill might still be alive if that citizen had a permit to carry,” Sheriff Lewis says.

All the officers interviewed for this feature stated they are not asking citizens to act as police officers. What they are asking for is for those who are capable—who carry and if it is possible within the context of a worst-case scenario—to step in to save lives when they can until police arrive.

Anti-gun politicians and gun-haters in the so-called “mainstream” media have repeatedly claimed that armed citizens present absolutely no deterrent to violent crime. Who should you believe: Those who know nearly nothing about guns and self-defense, or top county law enforcement officers who strap on a gun every day and head for the streets to keep Americans safe?