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?”
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.