We Need To Talk About Guns

A few months ago the media in Scotland was full of glaring headlines making an issue about armed police officers being seen, carrying sidearms, in places such as shops or walking from one place to another. Usually focussing on the officers having the audacity to go and buy something to eat or similar.

The outrage seemed to be limited to a few politicians and newspapers as the vast majority of people actually spoken to took a far more pragmatic view. 

As is usual in these stories, the person apparently spoken to by the journalist who claims to have been “shocked and stunned” is never named. If they ever existed at all.

Recently, another of these Non-stories broke and the paper published its own poll asking its readers whether it was acceptable for officers to be openly carrying weapons or not.

Any survey company in the world would argue that the result was conclusive. To the point that the paper should probably not bother running another story on the subject again. Almost 90% of respondents came back with “what’s the issue?”


The Press and Journal, 11th July 2016

This style of report now seems to be spreading south of the border with another such thing appearing in today’s Portsmouth News


Meanwhile, in London yesterday, a new team of rapid response counter-terrorism officers were announced publicly for the first time. This is an overt response to events elsewhere in Europe which have led to the deaths of many people in a very few weeks.

Later that night, an incident took place in Russell Square, London whereby a suspect armed with a knife is reported to have gone on a rampage which left one female tourist dead and several others seriously hurt.

Armed police were on the scene within 6 minutes. They would have been carrying sidearms and possibly long arms but they chose a less lethal option and the suspect was stopped by the use of taser and arrested. In any other country he would most likely have been shot and killed.

Those six minutes are crucial. That is a rapid response but in those 6 minutes the suspect has unimpeded access to any number of potential victims.

As a firearms commander I know that response times for armed officers can be a lot longer than this depending on where the incident is taking place and how far away the armed officers are.

Against a suspect armed with a large knife and in the kind of mindset likely to have been displayed in Russell Square then the options to stop them really are at the upper end of the force continuum. There is nearly always room or time for negotiation but sometimes there really isn’t.

Look at the moment the armed officers arrived on the scene of Fusilier Lee Rigby’s murder. They hadn’t even opened the car doors properly before they were faced with a shoot or not to shoot situation as the suspect charged toward them.

Time really is of the essence and when it comes to armed officers the issue of “it’s not about numbers it’s how they are deployed” is wrong. It’s about both.

British policing has a long and proud history of carrying out its duties unarmed. But there have ALWAYS been armed officers within the police. In years gone by officers were routinely issued with a revolver on night shifts. Many used to carry a cutlass.

Recent events have shown us that the list of potential targets is not limited to military or government property.

In Europe targets have been very much places where people are gathered in numbers and going about their business. Bars, cafés, nightclubs, shopping centres, football games, fireworks displays.

Any of these locations in any city in the world could be the next mass casualty target.

Think – just think – about how many of these there are in your town or city.

Then ask how many armed officers are on duty at any one time.

Intelligence is key to preventing atrocities but what was the intelligence about that church in Normandy on that particular day? Why Munich over Berlin?

So many of these recent attacks have tenuous links to terrorism or may even be self radicalisation but it is hard – very hard – to spot a lone wolf. Even with the phenomenal security services we have in this country.

Our armed officers are selected on the highest criteria and trained to the highest degree and long may that continue. The very last thing a UK armed officer wants to do is shoot someone.

Their training, professionalism, bravery and restraint impresses me every time I have the privilege of commanding them.

The threat is real. We need to talk about it. There is a lot of geography to cover in the United Kingdom and an awful lot of potential targets. We have the capability to respond – we need to raise the capacity and that is why this recent uplift in armed officers is necessary, justified and proportionate.

As Bob Dylan put it

“You’d better start swimming or you’ll sink like a stone 

Oh, the times they are a changin'” 

If the worst happens then we need to be able to respond and respond fast – anywhere.

As for the debate about officers buying food whilst carrying a sidearm – the news papers need to grow up.

It is not an unusual sight so stop making out that it is. Stop making out that it is sensational. Stop making out that these officers don’t exist and stop making out that the very sight of them carrying a gun is terrifying or dangerous.

It is neither.

These officers are highly professional and superbly trained. They are ready to respond to the most life threatening incidents in a moment. They need to be ready. They are nothing to be frightened of.

That is reality. The sooner some people come to terms with it the better.

If we are going to have this conversation – and we need to – then we need to rise above the hysterical, non-story, sensational reporting and get into the fine detail.

We need to talk about guns – but we need to do it like adults.

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11 responses to “We Need To Talk About Guns”

  1. korhomme says :

    The PSNI in N Ireland are all armed, as were the RUC before them. Nothing unusual here.

  2. Emma says :

    So why do officers have to bring the guns into the supermarket? Why don’t they leave them in the car when the only tactical goal is to buy a sandwich?

    • nathanconstable says :

      For the same reason you might carry your baton or CS.

    • bosco55 says :

      Because they’d look rather foolish if an armed robbery took place in the shop they were in and had to ask the perpetrators to hang on while they went back to their car to get their weapons out of the boot…

    • korhomme says :

      The PSNI bring them into the shops when they want a snack to take away. They are normally only handguns in a holster. Entirely unremarkable.
      NI is (still) a part of the UK.

    • Eduardo says :

      Did you even read the article? If a cop is armed I want him / her carrying their weapon. Safely in their custody and ready to respond. Look at the increase in gun crime. I want the police I help pay for to be effective and able to defend themselves and us not hamstrung with a weapon left in a car to be stole.

      As the author said – there have always been armed police – why hide from this fact and pretend that it isn’t so?

      • Emma says :

        My opinion is cultural – not operational or tactical. I don’t want to see guns in my local supermarket. If the chances of the officers requiring then when buying a sandwich is so low, I would prefer that they left them in the car.
        Once they stop sending unarmed officers into supermarkets because the threat of an incident requiring an armed response is too great, I’ll reconsider my opinion. But, hey, it’s just an opinion…

  3. Will says :

    The issue sits more around policing by consent for me. If you disarm the population and arm the police it looks a little like an uneccessary escalation. If the threat is so high that we need to dramatically increase the number of armed officers then why are the public not empowered to defend themselves as they see appropriate? This was the norm for the first half of the twentieth century and seemed to work reasonably well.
    Yes the police were on scene at Russell Square within six minutes, but would the situation have been potentially resolved faster had passers by been allowed access to incapitants and/or firearms?
    No less than the head of Interpol suggested a couple of years ago, that if the active shooter scenario were to become more widespread then “an armed citizenry might be the only answer”.
    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/personal-view/3614386/Theres-only-one-way-to-protect-ourselves-and-heres-the-proof.html

  4. David James Smith says :

    All responses are in proportion to perceived threat, and then scaled according to what is met. Sometimes the threat occurs without notice and must be met there and then. I have nothing but admiration and respect for those officers who rise to the challenge on our behalf. Thank you for being ready wherever you go.

  5. Blackops says :

    A very well written and thought out piece. Clearly written by someone who has an understanding and knowledge of Armed policing in the UK.
    Unfortunately the media would rather dramatize the issue and criticise officers than talk about why there is a requirement for extra armed resources and how the politicians are constantly removing the powers that allow cops to do their job.

    Emma, if they leave the weapons in the vehicle who protects the vehicle? There are two main reasons why are offices are routinely armed one is to deal with anything they spontaneously come across and the second is for the protection of the vehicle and the further weapons that remain in the vehicle.

  6. Retired says :

    “We need to talk about guns – but we need to do it like adults.” Unfortunately, given the state of our media and political class that won’t happen any time soon. Hysteria and hyperbole will rule. As has been said we now live in a post factual, post truth world (whatever that means). People in the UK seem to have a fit of the vapours if they see an armed police officer and go on about ‘policing by consent’. I wouldn’t mind betting that a lot of those people regularly travel to countries where the police are routinely armed and even worse tuck their boots into their trousers. Do they feel intimidated there? Do they limit their travel to places that have an unarmed police? I would imagine not.
    As an aside I would say I was an ARV officer in the early days. We were only issued the most basic of kit as compared to today and had to perform our duties wearing beat duty uniform. Was it suitable? Definitely not but trying to turn around entrenched attitudes within the unit at that time was like turning a supertanker with a canoe paddle. At least the ARV crews now have suitable kit to enable them to perform their role effectively.
    Still, if a little bit of faux outrage sells papers and keeps rent a quotes busy who am I to complain?

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