Armed incidents are so common we can’t continue to leave officers and the public so exposed to danger

An incident in Auckland on Sunday shows that, sooner rather than later, firearms locked in police cars will prove too far away to save lives.

A man with a gun arrived at Waitakere Hospital, Henderson, and threatened staff. Unarmed police happened to be inside and were alerted by security.

The man was between the officers and their patrol car, which had firearms locked inside. The officers had two choices. Confront the man unarmed, or take cover and hope he didn't kill someone while they waited for back-up.

The officers decided to confront him. The man fired a shotgun at the patrol car. Despite this show of force, one officer distracted him while the other got to the car and retrieved a firearm. Once armed, the officers were able to arrest him safely.

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A happy outcome, thanks to extraordinary bravery and a lot of luck. Had the man fired at the officers rather than their car, we could be mourning the deaths of two policemen.

Had the officers retreated, the man could have shot someone else, taken a hostage or gone on a rampage.

If, on the other hand, New Zealand police officers carried a gun on their hip the pair would have been in a position immediately to begin to contain the situation, challenge the man to surrender and, if necessary, take action in self-defence or defence of another.

The Police Association's biennial survey, last carried out in 2013 by Nielsen, shows more than two-thirds of frontline police believe it's now necessary to be armed. The same survey shows a majority of the public (56 per cent) agree.

Armed incidents unfold without warning. A weapon locked in a vehicle when needed is no use to anyone. We don't want officers forced to stand by while an offender kills someone or goes on a rampage. That happened in Cumbria, Britain, in 2010, when a man killed 12 and injured another 11 before taking his own life. Unarmed police followed him after the first two shootings, but were forced to retreat when he threatened them with a shotgun. He fled and continued his deadly spree.

Fortunately, mass killings are rare. We all hope another Aramoana or Raurimu never happens again. Armed offender incidents, however, are not rare. They are now so commonplace as to pass virtually without mention, unless the incident is compounded by a carjacking or high-speed chase.

Arming police cannot spark an arms race because criminals are already armed. Most drug dealers, gang members and associates have access to firearms and frequently carry them for self-defence, or to threaten and intimidate rivals. The fact police are not their intended targets is cold comfort when someone stumbles across their path and gets shot.

These are the circumstances of several incidents in recent years - the murder of Don Wilkinson and Len Snee, the wounding of Jeremy Snow, Bruce Lamb, Mitch Alatalo and an Auckland officer during a routine traffic stop in 2012. Other officers have been threatened or shot at.

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Finding guns during routine traffic stops or search warrants is almost a daily occurrence.

Just the day after the Waitakere incident two unarmed officers in Otara happened on armed suspects who attempted a carjacking as they fled.

But armed offenders are not limited to the organised criminal underworld. Armed robbers target everything from armoured cars to dairies. There are those who are armed and aggrieved, with specific targets and a determination to do harm. Domestic incidents, and the Ashburton Winz office shooting, fall into that category. And there are fugitives, desperate to avoid capture at any cost.

The recent shooting of an officer in a Hamilton supermarket carpark comes to mind.

The sad reality is we will see many more deaths at the hands of run-of-the-mill armed offenders. It won't be long before one of those deaths occurs because police at the scene couldn't take action to save a life, because they weren't armed. It is time to overcome our squeamishness and arm police.

• Greg O'Connor is president of the Police Association
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