The Police Association did not welcome the result of a poll we published recently. It found a clear majority, 65 per cent, of 2296 sampled Herald readers did not want the police to routinely carry firearms. They were content with current practice that uses specially armed squads to deal with incidents involving guns. The association president, Greg O'Connor, said this "nostalgic" view was now unrealistic.

He was referring to the long-accepted view that police sidearms would only make criminals more likely to carry guns. "Criminals don't necessarily arm themselves against police, they arm themselves against each other and police are becoming collateral damage," he said.

Some days later we published figures showing an increase in the use of armed offenders squad staff to accompany general duties police. Figures released to the Herald under the Official Information Act showed armed staff attended 789 times in the year to last July. That was a 21 per cent increase on the 650 the previous year and 68 per cent higher than the 470 attendances in 2000-2001.

The police blame 'P". Methamphetamine-driven offenders are unpredictable and a call for arms can be well understood when officers have to deal with them. Calls to accompany unarmed officers are said to now outweigh emergency responses in the work of armed offenders squad members.

The association believes this is not sufficient protection for ordinary police and strengthens its case for all police to have a firearm, if not on their hip then at least readily available in a patrol car. The association plans a poll of its own to convince the Government there is now public support for arming all police. Mr O'Connor believes the response to the Herald survey might have been different if people had realised it takes up to two hours for an armed offenders squad to be deployed.

Maybe, but New Zealanders would be reluctant to give up the security of unarmed law enforcement. Not many of us feel safer in Australia or other places where we see pistols strapped to the belts of officers on routine patrols. Most of us have welcomed the Taser stun guns that New Zealand police can carry but a deadly weapon is a different story.

Before we succumb to the Police Association's campaign we should take a closer look at those armed offenders squad figures. A total of 650 tasks over a year averages fewer than two a day nationwide and most of them are not emergency call-outs, according to the commander of national tactics groups, Superintendent Bruce Dunstan. He estimates that about 60 per cent of squad members' work is now accompanying detectives on planned operations.

This work, involving two or three members at a time rather than the whole unit, appears to account for the rising annual "call-out" rate over the past decade. It is evidence that police are facing an increased risk from firearms on "routine" work, especially where drugs are involved, but there is no evidence that the armed squads are unable to deal with it. There are 17 such squads around the country, totalling 335 staff. With an average of just under 20 staff each they can surely handle the demands the job figures suggest.

New Zealanders have long suspected their police are armed more routinely than the public wants to know or their commanders want to admit. If so, there is value in the invisibility of it. We have police who are trained to exercise authority without the crutch of a hip holster and without the risk of reaching for a gun. They are safer and we are safer when they assess situations more carefully than they might with a gun at hand. Without ostentatious firepower they command greater public respect.