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Why an upstate New York sheriff wants residents to carry guns

Ulster County Sheriff Paul Van Blarcum's advice that residents arm themselves when leaving the house has struck a chord with people on both sides of the gun rights debate.

An upstate New York sheriff is drawing both ire and applause for a social media post licensed gun owners to arm themselves when they leave the house, following the mass shooting in San Bernardino, Calif.

"I urge you to responsibly take advantage of your legal right to carry a firearm," Ulster County Sheriff Paul Van Blarcum wrote on his department's Facebook page less than a day after the San Bernardino, California shooting.

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The responses to his post are emblematic of the ongoing and bitter national debate around the role of gun rights in the troubling phenomenon of mass shootings. To many gun rights activists, Sheriff Van Blarcum's request is not just sound advice but a proactive strategy for individual citizens to be ready to take justice into their own hands should they ever be confronted with an active shooter scenario. But others believe the ubiquity of guns in the United States enables extremists and terrorists to legally obtain weapons used in mass shootings.

“Finally, law enforcement official speaking the truth and caring about its citizens,” another rebutted.

“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,” one person commented.

"There were more positive comments than negative, but the negative ones are very adamant," Van Blarcum told the Associated Press. "I respect the people who disagree with me. As a licensed handgun owner, you make the decision whether you want to carry it or not. It's a personal decision."

The sheriff also urged all police officers, whether on active duty or retired, to never leave home without a firearm.

Ulster county is a largely rural area of over 180,000 residents. The county also has around 10,000 licensed handgun owners, according to Van Blarcum.

Sheriffs' calls for residents to obtain firearms have occurred before and prompted similar discussions.

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An Idaho sheriff advised residents to purchase firearms last month following a string of armed home robberies where the intruders opened fire on residents.

Two years ago, a Milwaukee County Sheriff was accused of promoting vigilantism after he issued a public service announcement asking residents to arm themselves after budget cuts resulted in police layoffs.

For Van Blarcum, the post was about offering county residents some sense of control over their own safety at a time when fear of violent extremism and terrorism is rampant.

"I'm not trying to drum up a militia of any sort," Van Blarcum told The Associated Press. "It's just a reminder that if you want to, you have a right to carry it. It might come in handy. It's better to have it than not have it. We're partners with the public in crime prevention."

This report includes material from The Associated Press.