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Debate: Armed police

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Revision as of 19:42, 20 May 2009

Should a police force be routinely armed?

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Background and Context of Debate:

The police in the United Kingdom are routinely unarmed, whereas in North America and most European countries – as elsewhere – policemen are routinely armed. In countries such as the United States, police arms are commonly cited as links to abuse of power e.g. victimisation of certain ethnic communities, and so there are sometimes calls for a reduction in police reliance on firepower. There are also calls, however, for extending their presence, e.g. using armed air marshals: this is essentially a different debate involving air safety issues etc., although many of the points below may still have some relevance.

Argument #1


Routinely arming the police is an effective deterrent to criminal behaviour; most countries in Europe and North America routinely arm police officers, in part to deter criminal acts. Armed criminals operate in at least some areas in almost every jurisdiction. Given this, a failure to routinely arm the police gives armed criminals a strong advantage in terms of their ability to threaten and commit violence without any corresponding risk to themselves.


Routinely arming the police causes a spiral of violence. Where the police are not routinely armed, a proportion of criminals will not arm themselves (since, for example, armed robbery often carries a higher sentence than robbery). Once the police are armed, criminals who do not match their capability operate under a strong disadvantage. Therefore, when the police become routinely armed, the criminal world fully arms itself in response. The mere fact of increased weapons possession (by both police and criminals) will in itself result in higher use, since in circumstances where arms may not be currently used (e.g. a police chase), either side carrying weapons will mean that they consider a shooting option which they did not formerly possess. This effectively reduces the options currently available, for example the police are less likely to use less harmful alternatives such as “stun guns”, CS spray, negotiation, etc.

Argument #2


The old-fashioned notions of friendly neighbourhood light policing reflected the aspirations of a different age. As armed violence has increased sharply in parts of the developed world, the police need to redefine their role so that it is a more appropriate response to contemporary problems. There is also a network effect involved in being a state with unarmed police when others have them. The nation may be seen as a “soft touch” compared to other regional nations. This can effectively encourage an importation of criminality.


By routinely arming its police officers, the state effectively legitimises the weapon as a symbol of authority. Whether or not this is pragmatic, it is an implied affirmation of the criminal sub-culture, which will accordingly be strengthened. By this policy – especially in the absence of a fundamental right for citizens to bear arms – the role of the police is essentially defined in opposition to at least part of the citizenry. This can be contrasted to the more common expectation that police and citizens operate under essentially common rules, for shared values.

Argument #3


  • Arming police and swat teams can quelling riots. Discharging weapons into the air to disperse rioters is easier and more efficient than stunning all of them. Things like teargas and knockout gas can be used to instantly halt a group of rioters or make them leave. If things get violent with the rioters and peoples lives are in danger, that is when the time for rubber bullets and tasers has passed and deadly force is needed to protect the lives of the innocent. Any sort of police force should be prepared to do these things in the event of a riot to protect people permanently instead of temporarily.
  • Routinely armed police reassure law-abiding citizens. This is at a time when gun-related crime is increasing in most European countries and parts of North America. Much public opinion holds that something must be done to tackle this. People may feel safer when they see armed police, especially if they perceive them as a response to a heightened risk. Thus, for example, police officers at British airports routinely carry sub-machine guns, although there is no evidential pattern to suggest that this high-visibility weaponry offers any situational strategic advantage over a more subtle arming.


Arming the police delegitimises their role as community standard bearers. Many law-abiding citizens who have no connection to the criminal underworld are horrified by armed police, whom they regard as alien to their cultural frame of reference. Lethal weaponry is a potent symbol of possible brutality. This can undermine the ability of the police to be seen as a key constituent part of civil society. This problem is exacerbated when this symbolic brutality is applied in ways that deviate from the expectations of civil society for example through unfair racial profiling.

Argument #4


Routinely arming police officers allows them to defend themselves. There is a global increase in gun ownership, even in countries which did not traditionally think of themselves as having a large criminal gun culture e.g. Great Britain. This increases the risks to frontline police officers of being the victims of gun crime. Police officers should have a right to protect themselves. Fewer officers may die on duty if they were better able to protect themselves. Arming the police is essentially a matter of self-defence rather than being actively involved in regular firearms incidents. This is shown by the fact that most routinely armed police never fire their weapon on active duty in their whole career.


Arming the police is an easy way of ignoring the fundamental failures of society. Guns are an ex post response to crime. What is actually needed is more effort in preventing crime through detective work and policing strategy rather than focussing on responding to it. Nor does arming the police offer a solution to fundamental socio-political issues which contribute to crime. Routinely arming the police is an uneven response to gun crime, as it will affect some sections of the community more than others. For example, as certain ethnic groups are often associated with particular types of criminality, police use of firearms will damage police credibility within communities which feel that they are the subject of too much police suspicion. Even if the police believe they are carrying weapons in self-defence, others will view it as an aggressive act.

Argument #5


The police themselves are calling for more routine arming, through both the unions that represent rank and file policemen, and the bodies which speak for the senior officers. If we want them to uphold law and order, we should trust the police's judgement about the tools they need to carry out their task. Recruitment will also suffer if police officers are seen as too vulnerable, an easy target for criminals because they have no proper means to defend themselves.


The police are split on this issue at all levels, so it would be wrong to listen only to the loudest voices. The police should also be firmly under civilian control, with policy issues such as the carrying of firearms or stop and search policy subject to political decisions and accountability. Recruitment may well be adversely affected if the police are armed; many current officers opposed to this measure may leave, and others like them will not apply to join the force in future. Do we want a police force largely composed of people who want to carry a gun every day?

Argument #6


This is a small step, as police officers are routinely armed already in a variety of situations, e.g. at airports and when providing security for political leaders or institutions. Already rapid-response units of armed officers are available to deal with armed criminals, but these need to be specially summoned and authorised. Often, they arrive too late to do any good.


This is a big change, both culturally and practically. The large majority of policemen and women go through their whole career without handling firearms. Even with the special selection measures and intensive training given to the few firearms officers today, mistakes sometimes occur and innocent people are shot, either by mistake because the armed officers are acting on inaccurate information, or because they are bystanders caught in the cross-fire of a shoot-out. Arming all police officers would mean ditching the current stringent selection methods and inevitably result in less training being provided, so mistakes would become much more common and more people would be wounded or killed.



  • This House would arm the police
  • This House lacks faith in an unarmed constabulary
  • This House believes that policemen should have a right to bear arms
  • This House would fight fire with fire

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