Leading article: Arms are not the answer

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The Independent Online

Should the police be armed? It would be too abrupt to answer the question in the simple negative. Just as it seems disrespectful of the grief of Sharon Beshenivsky's family for Michael Winner to call immediately for all police officers to carry guns, so the rest of us are required to pause and think hard about our defence of a mainly unarmed force.

Mr Winner may be very sure that the majority of officers fatally shot on duty would have been alive if they had carried guns, but no one else should be. We cannot know how the robbers or the police might have behaved differently in Bradford on Friday, but it is hard to see how even Mr Winner could be certain that, had PC Beshenivsky been armed, she would still be alive today.

There are some consequences of arming the police, however, that are certain. One is that more people would be killed, and there is a higher risk that they would include non-combatants in the war against crime - bystanders and the victims of misunderstandings or mis-identification. Related to this is the fact that most members of the public would feel less safe if they knew that local beat officers were carrying firearms. At a stroke this could negate much of the recent gain in the quality of life secured by more visible policing aimed at prevention and reassurance.

It is possible, of course, that retaining a police force which is the only one in the world apart from New Zealand's not routinely armed might marginally increase the risk to individual officers. In fact, most officers take the view that carrying a gun would make them less safe, according to surveys carried out by the Police Federation. It may be true that more criminals than ever carry guns in this country, but arming the police is only likely to increase this and make criminals more likely to use the weapons they already have.

There seems to be a widespread and instinctive understanding in this country of the dangers of a hunger for the illusory certainty of deterrence. While in the United States the right to protect oneself has produced a society that is much more dangerous than ours for every member, here even the discussion about body armour for the police starts by recognising that not every risk can be absolutely protected against. After the Bradford shootings, it may be that the balance between everyday practicality and the level of protection should be reviewed, but that some kind of balance has to be struck should not be in doubt.

It is encouraging and slightly surprising that the calls for arming the police have been limited to Mr Winner and PC Norman Brennan, director of a small pressure group called Protect the Protectors. They were not supported yesterday by The Sun, the Daily Mail, the Daily Express or The Daily Telegraph.

Yet such an overwhelming consensus in favour of retaining the present position should not imply that it is an easy position to defend. As Sir Ian Blair said in his Dimbleby Lecture two days before the Bradford shooting, we "should not underestimate the raw courage that that represents". He could not have imagined how vividly his words would be illustrated.

Should the police be armed? The answer is still no, but we are humbled today by the dedication and bravery of the police officers who have to live and work with the consequences of that judgement.