Spare us another debate on arming the police. As the Herald reported yesterday, police officers already have what amounts to ready access to guns. Hundreds of their cars carry gun safes, and Central Auckland officers draw weapons from their vehicles nearly twice a week. Night patrols in districts deemed dangerous regularly carry guns. Pertinently, one of the two officers shot during an incident in Christchurch this week, the catalyst for the latest round of hand-wringing, had a firearm in a safe in his dog wagon. The problem was not access but the fact that he did not take the weapon with him when investigating a strong whiff of cannabis coming from a house.

What the two officers had not reckoned on was the increasing willingness of those involved in the drug industry, even at low and mid-levels, to use guns. Yet recent police experience suggests they should have been aware that what they were doing was risky. In September 2008, Sergeant Don Wilkinson died after he was shot while on an undercover drugs operation in Mangere East, and eight months later, Senior Constable Len Snee was shot dead in Napier while on a low-level drug raid.

It is apparent that the police must be more cautious in their approach to drug activities. It is equally obvious, however, that the rational response to such episodes is not to give them easier access to firearms, certainly not to the extent of permanently arming all sergeants and senior sergeants, as advocated by the Police Association. Its president, Greg O'Connor, says that "every frontline supervisor ... should be carrying a firearm on their person and every patrol car should have a firearm available as a minimum. Any policy that comes up short of that will be an absolute failure to respond to the reality of today's situation, which has seen nine police officers shot in two years, two fatally".

Mr O'Connor is wrong. Arming the police in that manner would only raise the danger of such weapons being used as a policing means of first resort, not last. It would also result in criminals being more willing to use their weapons, sometimes at a cost to innocent bystanders.

What should, in fact, occur is a toughening of the police approach to low and mid-level drug activities and, most importantly, a crackdown on illegal arms in the criminal underworld. The latter has become a matter of considerable urgency, so much so that it should be the subject of a taskforce investigation. Since 1982, when the registration of every firearm was abandoned, the police have become more and more in the dark about how many guns, legal and illegal, are in the country. All that is obvious is that too many guns are falling into the wrong hands. Equally, too many lethal arsenals, such as that of Jan Molenaar, the killer of Senior Constable Snee, are being accumulated. This means the police face potential danger when investigating an array of criminal activities, not least approaching a P lab or a cannabis-selling "tinnie house".

This is not, however, an issue isolated to the police. The death or shooting of an officer in the line of duty rightly receives special attention, and is the most likely harbinger of a tightening of the gun laws. But the shooting of ordinary citizens because of criminals' increased willingness to use firearms should also arouse concern.

Ways must be found to disarm those who possess firearms for no legitimate reason, while not impinging unduly on the activities of hunters, recreational shooters, gun collectors and suchlike. An underworld devoid of guns is, of course, a fantasy. But much more can be done to prevent criminals obtaining and holding them. That, not the routine arming of the police, should be the focus.