Western Daily Press comment: Guns will not bolster the thin blue line
Should Britain's police be routinely armed? The question has been posed again in the wake of the killing of two police officers in a gun and grenade attack as they investigated a hoax burglary in Greater Manchester
Had PC Nicola Hughes, 23, and PC Fiona Bone, 32, been armed, would they be alive today? It is tempting to think so; tempting too, to conclude that Britain – one of just a handful of countries whose police officers are not routinely armed – should abandon its objections. We recall a former policeman commenting in the aftermath of a similar tragedy a few years ago that it was time the police stopped being a tourist attraction and became a law enforcement agency.
But while it is true that gun crime has grown in Britain and both police officers and law-abiding citizens are at greater risk of being shot by a criminal, the balance of argument remains against such a drastic step.
The main reason for the growth in gun use is the drugs trade. Dealers carry weapons to protect themselves from other criminals and a mandatory five-year jail sentence for possessing a gun is little deterrent for someone who will go to prison anyway for up to 14 years if he is caught trafficking in crack or heroin.
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But the murder of a police officer on duty remains a rare event. While it is more dangerous to be a police officer today, it is not dramatically so.
Since the time of Robert Peel, it has been accepted that, if the police are to have the consent of the public, they should be unarmed. Peel even decreed that truncheons should be hidden from view. Although the police today are less community-based than many would wish, to give every bobby a gun would change their character for ever.
There has already been a transformation in the past 40 years, mainly in response to the terrorist threat. It is no longer unusual to see a British officer carrying a gun. Anyone who travels from Heathrow Airport is used to seeing flak-jacketed officers carrying machine guns.
The increased presence of armed police is a response to a more violent society in which criminals more readily resort to weapons, and terrorism is an ever-present threat. But these officers are deployed as and when needed.
The danger is that we will develop a routinely armed force by default if the police fail to get a grip on street drug crime and other factors that are fuelling the growth in handguns. We suspect that few want to go down this road, not even those on the front line.