Arm the police


November 27, 2005 – The fatal shooting of a police constable in Bradford recently has once again reignited the debate on whether the police should be generally armed with firearms; and once again, the debate reverts back to the old clichés about how doing this will drive a “wedge” between the police and the public, and how the police don’t support doing it, it’s unnecessary, perhaps we need a few more armed response vehicles, arming the police will simply mean criminals steal them from officers, etc.

All of this is complete twoddle and anyone who has ever examined the issues involved knows this full well.  The problem is communicating this to the public and having the political will to do something about it, both of which are quite hard.  We apparently have a Prime Minister who takes “principled” stands when the police say they want 90 days to question possible terrorist suspects, but when it goes against the grain with the police, what we get are platitudes.

So, perhaps it’s time someone made the facts known, although they will remain tucked away on this little corner of the web.

The first fact is that the police actually already are armed, just generally not with firearms.  They no longer carry truncheons; they carry PR-24 batons and CS spray.  Has this caused a “wedge” between the police and the public?  I think not.  What generally causes a “wedge” between the police and the public is when the police are unable to tackle crime that affects the public – and tackling criminals armed with firearms is rather difficult when the police generally don’t have them.  I never hear of anyone talking about a “wedge” between themselves and the police in countries where the police carry guns, including places with similar cultural values to the UK, such as Australia and Canada.

The second fact is that armed response vehicles are largely useless except in response to intelligence-led investigations, or tackling barricaded armed suspects.  Home Office research strongly indicates this.  For example, this study, on page 30 contains the memorable quote that in response to police initiated responses to armed crime, that: “Armed Response Vehicles, although they may have been deployed, were not responsible for any arrests.”  Another Home Office study indicates strongly why this is the case: it takes 10-12 minutes (at best) for ARVs to arrive on the scene of an armed incident.  By this time of course, the crooks are long gone, and have certainly had time to shoot at the first responders if they haven’t fled.  But the most important fact is that when police respond to an armed crime without advance intelligence, with a handful of exceptions that you can count on your fingers, the first officers to arrive are invariably not armed with firearms.  One of the most graphic examples of how this can go wrong was the murder of PC Ian Broadhurst by David Bieber.  Although Bieber was outnumbered by police officers, he was able to kill one officer and nearly kill two others simply because he was better armed.

If you need any further evidence of the uselessness of ARVs, you only need to read this story.  Yep, that’s right, West Midlands Police happened to haul in a suspect involved in shooting dead a PC, and they had no firearms themselves because they didn’t know he was there!

The Police Federation routinely point to a poll that indicated 80% of their members don’t want to carry firearms, so the PF then calls for more police to have firearm training and for an increase in the number of ARVs, a sort of way of calling for the police to be better armed without actually arming them with guns.  Unfortunately, it’s nonsensical as already pointed out.  ARVs are useless, and firearm training without having immediate access to a firearm is also pointless.  Whenever I hear about this poll result, two things always go through my mind – the first is that I wonder how many of the 20% of officers who want to carry guns work in areas where armed crime is common, and how many of the 80% of officers who don’t want to carry them do?  The second thing that goes through my mind is that I’d like to know when health and safety issues were open to being decided by a poll!

Unfortunately there are no statistics on how many guns stolen from police officers are used in crime (probably because it’s so rare), so that’s a difficult question to answer, however FBI statistics indicate that only 8% of officers murdered in the course of their duty in the US are shot with their own guns, and that only 10% of officers who are shot dead are shot with their own guns.  This to me is an argument for better weapon retention training in some police organisations, not that it’s too dangerous for officers to be armed with guns.

The only argument that people opposed to arming the police have that holds any water is that there is no need for the police to be armed generally with firearms.  And they’re right, there isn’t.  The rate of armed crime in most parts of the country simply doesn’t justify it, especially when put in the context of the cost of buying all those guns and the amount of training that would be required.  But, and it’s a big “but”, in some areas of the country, notably parts of London, Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds, Nottingham, Bristol, some of the suburbs of those cities and elsewhere, there is a significant amount of serious armed crime, and in those areas, there is a need for the police to be generally armed with firearms.

So please can they now be armed?  The alternative is that the police in these areas continue to be ineffective at stopping random armed crime and simply serve as human sandbags, which is unacceptable.

More from Parliament

The Violent Crime Reduction Bill continues through Parliament.  It has now passed over to the Lords who have the unenviable task of trying to make it into a workable piece of legislation.

There is some good news for gun owners – under pressure the Government have decided not to include deactivated firearms, antiques, and replica antiques in the definition of a “realistic imitation firearm”, which the Bill prohibits from import, manufacture or sale.  However, airsoft enthusiasts will be in for a tough time.  The Government proposes to allow the sale of airsoft guns and other imitation firearms to continue provided they no longer look realistic.  Primarily this will be achieved by either requiring the imitation to be very small, or a certain bright colour.

One wonders if anyone at the Home Office has heard of black paint; it appears not.  Assuming that imitation firearms are the grave threat to public safety that the Home Office says they are, it’s hard to see how this legislation can be effective because of the huge number of imitations already in circulation and also because of the existence of black paint.  The Home Office Minister responsible for moving the legislation through the House of Commons, Hazel Blears MP, tells us that according to the most recent statistics, the use of imitation firearms in crime has risen 66%.

The problem with this statement is that first of all, a single year’s statistics prove basically nothing, as there is no trend to identify, and secondly, the Home Office’s own research indicates that this figure is dubious because it depends to a large extent on victim identification, or identification by the police.  Undoubtedly in many cases the gun is misidentified, and it’s highly unlikely a victim (or anyone else) can swear to the difference between a “realistic imitation firearm” and a non-realistic imitation firearm, especially if it’s dark, the gun is in someone’s pocket, etc.

However, it gets worse.  The Government have caved into pressure to crack down on air guns, despite stating in their own consultation paper in May 2004 that: “we do not therefore believe that there should be a system of licensing or further restrictions on the sale of air guns”.  Among various provisions, the age limit for the sale of an air gun would be raised to 18 (despite having been raised less than two years ago to 17), dealers in air guns would have to obtain a dealer’s registration (as dealers in other types of firearm have to) and transactions would have to be face-to-face.

Very little in the way of justification has been put forward for any of these provisions so it’s hard to critique the reasoning, in fact Hazel Blears appeared almost proud that she could not present any evidence at all to justify the increase in the age limit for acquisition.  What will happen of course is that a lot of air gun dealers will disappear as they depend on mail order sales.  This will lead to less choice for air gun users, and higher prices, given that you will only have a handful of choices locally where you can buy your new air gun, as transactions will have to be face-to-face.

Other silly provisions include a requirement to show a shotgun or firearm certificate prior to acquiring a reloading press.  Which is even more silly given the context that the Bill also requires a certificate to be shown for the acquisition of primers, making the provisions for presses redundant.

Hopefully the Lords will remove some of this nonsense from the Bill, but whether or not the Commons will accept their amendments is an open question.  Write to your MP and urge him or her to vote for the acceptance of any Lords amendments that do remove these provisions from the Bill.

“No matter how thin you slice it, it’s still baloney.” – Gov. Alfred E. Smith of New York, 1936.