Greg O'Connor has never been slow to proclaim his belief that the police should carry guns. Last week, he was at it again, and in a tone that was shriller than before.

Writing in this newspaper, the Police Association president proclaimed that "it is time to overcome our squeamishness and arm police".

Absent from his narrative, however, was any examination of the reasons for the widespread unease about such a step. Or that it exists for very good reason.

Mr O'Connor bases his case on the prevalence of armed offender incidents.

Advertisement

"They are are now so commonplace as to pass virtually without mention unless the incident is compounded by a carjacking or high-speed chase," he wrote. Finding guns during routine traffic stops or search warrants was also almost a daily occurrence. This, said Mr O'Connor, had prompted more than two-thirds of frontline police to say last year that they believed it was now necessary to be armed.

That view might be more understandable if nothing had been done in response to the more dangerous environment in which the police now operate. In fact, much has been done.

Frontline officers already have much improved access to firearms thanks to the presence of Glock pistols and Bushmaster rifles in locked boxes in patrol cars.

They also have been given other options. Over time, pepper spray, Taser stun guns and sponge rounds have proved effective tools. So much so that late last year, the police national operations manager, Superintendent Barry Taylor, said this wider range of non-lethal weapons made the general arming of officers a more distant prospect.

Mr O'Connor is unconvinced. He maintains firearms locked in police cars may be too far away to save lives. Armed incidents, he says, unfold without warning. Essentially, he believes easier access to guns would give the police an edge when they confront criminals. But that overlooks the nature of most assaults on officers. Usually, they do not have the initiative.

In the United States, the FBI has calculated that in half the cases of police murders, the officer did not even have time to draw his gun. Ambushes can never be controlled, whether or not the police are armed.

More fundamentally, experience worldwide suggests arming the police has little impact on their safety or on the level of crime. Part and parcel of being a police officer is a degree of vulnerability.

Officers in the United States feel no safer than their counterparts here.

Advertisement

There is, obviously, no certainty criminals who may be on drugs or in desperate straits will be deterred by armed police. There is, however, a much greater chance of the public becoming involved in volatile situations, not least shoot-outs between criminals and officers who may assess situations less carefully because of the guns they are carrying.

There is also the risk of the police having weapons taken from them.

Finally, there is little to suggest that the country's 17 armed offenders squads are no longer an appropriate tool. This is their 50th year of operation, a milestone that underlines their effectiveness. Their use has expanded over the past few years as members have provided assistance in planned operations such as drug raids and executing search warrants, as well as armed incidents. This represents yet another cogent reaction to the greater willingness of criminals to use firearms when confronted.

The armed offenders squads and non-lethal weapons remain by far the preferable way of dealing with this more dangerous environment. Better that than a step that could serve only to threaten the generally good relationship between the police and the public.