A violent Christmas punctuated by gunfire has once more raised question s about when and how the police should use arms. It is an issue that divides ev en the force itself. Heather Mills reports
Bob Dixon was a Wild West freak. A grown man still into cowboys and Indians - the fastest draw in Huddersfield. Who knows what was going on in his mind when he was confronted by armed police laying siege to his home?

It will be for the Police Complaints Authority to establish exactly what happened on the Christmas bank holiday, but there seems little doubt that he threatened to "blow away" the police negotiator and fired two shots before he was brought down in a hailof bullets. The disclosure yesterday that his gun was a replica and that the shots were blanks would appear to confirm that while he was acting out one of his gun-slinging fantasies, the police were playing for real.

But the death of this man who turned out to have been a tireless charity fund-raiser, dedicated to his disabled wife and only mildly eccentric, has raised questions about whether police could and should have adopted a more conciliatory approach.

Should they have found out more about his background, about his cowboy fantasies and about the fact that he had been drinking all day? As he was locked in a house with a wife to whom he clearly presented no threat, could they have simply contained him there, giving him time to come to his senses?

Was it really necessary to call in the flying tactical firearms squad, when a more gentle approach from the local officers might have won through?

In the event, it may well have been the police siege that triggered off Bob Dixon's bizarre response. In America it is called "suicide by cop" - where the confrontation locks the victim into a fantasy scenario with its inevitably explosive conclusion.

But according to Dr Peter Waddington of Reading University, an author and expert on police use of firearms, Bob Dixon presented police with the worst kind of dilemma - his known penchant for weapons and his eccentricity made him highly unpredictable.

Police were called by a neighbour complaining that a gun had been fired in the street. They were confronted by a man brandishing a gun and threatening to shoot. They were not to know it was a replica.

"Can you imagine the conversation we would be having now if the weapon had been real and the police had given him a second chance and someone had been shot?" he said. "They were presented with a very dangerous situation and with what one armed officer once described as `an evil choice'. One you can't win. If you shoot, it is something you have to live with for the rest of your life, and if you don't and he kills someone else, then you have to live with that."

But what the incident does illustrate once again is the ability and readiness of the police to resort to firearms - something almost unheard of 20 years ago.

Now we see armed police at major airports, on the rooftops at party conferences and for terrorist trials at the Old Bailey, and armed response vehicles are now used by most police forces.

According to Brian Hilliard, editor of Police Review, increased numbers of armed police is simply a response to a more violent society in which people more readily resort to weapons. There were 10,373 gun-related crimes in 1990. This had risen to 13,305 by 1992.

The last three years have seen the killing of eight police officers. It was in response to the shooting of two of his men that Paul Condon, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, decided in May to double the number of mobile police squads and to allow them to wear their arms openly.

Some officers and law and order lobbyists believe the time has now come for more routine arming of our police - Mr Dixon's death will be one more statistic in the debate. On the other side, civil rights groups and lawyers are highly critical of police policy, pointing out that forces have been arming themselves by stealth, with little public and parliamentary debate.

Many officers see being armed as "going into a situation on equal terms". But the police demand for the right to carry guns has largely come from forces facing a surge in gun crime. Last year the National Criminal Intelligence Service recorded 31 crack related murders or attempted murders in London. Manchester has witnessed a similar explosion in drug-related gun crime, and it is in these inner city areas where police feel a greater need for protection.

But Dr Waddington says routine arming would not prove a protective talisman - experience worldwide showed that the arming of police was an "irrelevance" when it came to their safety.

And he shares the fears of the majority of officers who want to maintain rigorous controls over the use of police firearms: that general usage will lead to tragic mistakes. "Routinely armed police would inevitably lead to a badly trained force as they are in various parts of the world," he said.

In fact, while the public has become more aware of armed police on the streets, the greater use of the mobile units has meant that fewer officers are being trained in the use of firearms. Figures suggest that about 5 to 7 per cent of the officers are nowtrained in firearms compared with about 10 per cent a few years ago.

Dr Waddington argues that the use of a smaller number of highly trained firearms officers has meant there have been far fewer incidents where innocent people have been gunned down or killed by police. In the 1980s there was a series of such shooting and siege incidents involving inexperienced officers - Gail Kinchin and her unborn baby were killed by a West Midlands officer involved in a shoot-out with her boyfriend; John Shorthouse, a five-year-old, was accidently shot by another West Midlands officer;Stephen Waldorf and Cherry Groce were shot by London officers.

Those tragedies led to a tightening of the guidelines governing police use of firearms. Nevertheless international jurists still believe that UK rules are too woolly - it is left to the officer to decide what "reasonable" force is necessary to carry out his or her duties. What is judged "reasonable" can differ radically before and after the event.

But Dr Waddington argues that out of this principle has evolved the use of "minimum force". leading British police to be far less trigger-happy than some of their counterparts in other countries. In Australia and Canada, for example, rules allow for the shooting of a serious offender if he is escaping.

In this country, once the split-second decision is taken to shoot, then police are trained to "shoot to stop" - to aim at the body. There is less chance of missing, and less chance of being fired upon by someone only "winged" in the leg or arm. That inevitably means there will be tragedies like that of Mr Dixon.

At the end of an incident, the police involved in a shooting have to justify their actions or face criminal charges themselves. In the case of Mr Dixon they will have to prove that the force they used was no more than "reasonable". Their actions will be tested at Mr Dixon's inquest as well as in the Police Complaints Authority investigation.

And that is how most officers want it to remain. Opinion polls in the last few years have suggested that it is the public rather than the police who want to see more arms carried. While there clearly is a growing numbers of officers on the streets who wish to carry guns, most still want to maintain their traditional British role. While in reality there never was a Dixon of Dock Green, some officers do see themselves becoming more isolated from the public they serve and believe that carrying arms would divorce them further.

The move to smaller numbers of highly trained officers did not prevent Mr Dixon's death, but it does avoid scenarios like that in some US cities, where the police are responsible for most of the shootings. Last year one officer was shot dead in New York City while the police shot dead 22 suspects and injured 58. And of the roughly 100 policemen killed throughout the US each year, 10 are killed by their own weapon.