Leading Article: Why arms are not the answer

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The Independent Online
AFTER Wednesday's shooting in Brixton, south London, in which two police officers were wounded by a motorcycle pillion passenger, it is tempting to ask whether Britain should change its policy preventing police officers from routinely carrying guns. Apart from the Irish Republic and New Zealand, few national police forces remain unarmed.

Two arguments are often advanced for extending the current policy, under which about 10 per cent of British police officers are authorised to carry weapons and about half that number do so whenever they are on duty, to a full-scale arming of the force. One is that armed police would deter violent crime; the other is that the carrying of arms would protect police officers themselves from harm.

The first argument hardly stands up under close examination. International comparisons have failed to find any link between rates of violent crime or murder and the firepower of the police. If anything, the knowledge that the forces of the law will be armed may in fact be a reason for criminals who would not normally carry guns to change their minds.

The weight of a pistol on the belt may be comforting. But there seems only sporadic support among police officers themselves for the right to carry guns. Anyway, in most incidents when an armed criminal takes a police officer by surprise there is not enough time to draw. Had the two officers injured on Wednesday been carrying weapons, they might have sustained worse, rather than lesser, injuries.

Greater risks still arise when police respond by keeping their weapons at the ready, with safety catches off. As the tragic death of John Shorthouse in 1985 showed, the sudden movement in the shadows that prompts an edgy police officer to fire can just as easily be an innocent five-year-old as a criminal on the attack. Even if existing training standards could be maintained, the more casual use of guns by police would undoubtedly lead to an increase in the number of civilians killed by accident.

In the absence of any evidence that arming the police will make the public safer, a wiser policy would be to look at the causes rather than the symptoms. The illegal import of guns should be more rigorously controlled. Police officers should be given better safety helmets and flak jackets. And the underlying linkage between drugs and crime, which accounts for much of the growth of illegal gun use, should be severed. A limited decriminalisation of drugs has many points in its favour; the fact that it might make the lives of police officers safer is only one.