A minority of Scottish officers bear firearms while on routine business, but this is hardly the scare story some are making it out to be, writes Hugh Reilly
I SNUGLY placed the butt of the rifle into the recess of my left shoulder. Breathing slowly and smoothly to minimise unwanted movement of the firearm, my left eye stared down the barrel of the gun and focused on the target. Denied the advantage of telescopic sights, I was forced to take aim using the kind of sighting arrangement that had made matchlock muskets cutting-edge military technology at the Battle of Sedgemoor. Beads of sweat began to trickle down my face as I imperceptibly squeezed on the trigger. Steeling myself for the inevitable recoil, I fired the weapon and watched in horror as the ball-bearing failed to hit the inner bull and instead struck an unwitting gonk on the third shelf straight between the eyes. “You did that on purpose, ya little runt!” screamed the fairground stallholder. Believe me, if Lee Harvey Oswald had sourced his armament from this stallholder, JFK would have been just another second-term, lame-duck president.
When I joined Strathclyde Police in 1975, I dreamed of becoming a firearms officer. I was, after all, eminently qualified for the post, having watched Dirty Harry three times. I pictured myself standing over Glasgow punks and menacingly asking them if they felt lucky. Instead, the only Magnum I handled was a chocolate and almond ice cream. Standard police issue of the time was a subtle variation of a kitchen rolling pin that, probably due to potential patent problems, had been given the rather poncy name “baton”. It would be fair to say that Easterhouse gang members tooled up with bike chains, chibs and bespoke hatchets were somewhat less than intimidated when confronted by these baton-wielding boys in blue.
Thankfully, police officers nowadays have access to sprays and Tasers to protect themselves and the public. At the weekend, however, there was an outbreak of much faux outrage when it was revealed a tiny minority of police personnel are carrying guns while on patrol. The fact that 440 firearms specialists are covering the entire country – and not just urban areas – pleases me but upsets some politicians and human rights agitators. For example, Highland MP Danny Alexander says: “We are lucky to live in one of the safest parts of the UK. There is simply no need for officers to carry firearms in the Highlands.”
Until 2 June, 2010, rural Cumbria was also thought to be a safe part of Britain. Derrick Bird’s shooting spree that slew 12 and wounded 11 others put paid to that naïve notion. A subsequent investigation partly blamed a delay in deploying firearms officers for the high death total.
Scotland is still scarred by the memory of Dunblane. In my view, it would be a dereliction of duty for Police Scotland not to offer the same protection to those in the sticks as it affords to city-dwellers.
To be fair, Alexander’s absurd comments appear reserved when compared to the utterings of John Scott, QC, chairman of the human rights group Justice Scotland. “I am concerned there could be an increase of illicit firearms on the street in response,” he warned. This learned man seriously believes that violent criminals will consider entering a de facto arms race with the forces of law and order – how bizarre! Here’s some killer facts for the QC on the QT – gangsters are already plugging bullets into those seeking to undermine their business model.
On 13 January, 2010, my mother and I watched curiously from her window in north Glasgow as a police helicopter hovered over the Asda store’s car park. Mr Kevin “The Gerbil” Carroll, lay dead in the back seat of his car, shot several times at close range by masked men in broad daylight. In 2006, two men calmly walked into a Glasgow MOT garage and shot dead a 21-year-old and wounded two others.
Taking Mr Scott’s argument to its logical conclusion, any move by Police Scotland to disarm every officer would indubitably lead to all fair-minded mobsters reciprocating by throwing away their Glocks and nostalgically returning to the use of old-fashioned coshes to settle internecine disputes. But the QC strives to confect another half-cocked idea. “What happens if the [police] gun falls into the wrong hands?” he agonises. Admittedly, I’m shooting from the hip, but I imagine that stealing a sidearm from a trained police officer would be a tad tricky. In any event, one or two purloined police pistols would only add a few more handguns to the illegal arsenal that already exists in safe houses across Scotland.
Not to be outdone in the inauthentic indignation stakes, Graeme Pearson, Labour’s shadow justice minister, went ballistic, saying: “The public needs to be asked if it is something that they want. What happens if a gun goes off when the officer is routinely armed?” This is the same individual who, in 2006, as head of the Scottish Drug Enforcement Agency, called for his elite squad to be allowed to carry guns. Problems of inappropriate police use of lethal weaponry did not seem to vex him back then – his Damascene moment seems to have only occurred on the road to Holyrood.
Instead of sniping, politicians and others should put things into perspective. There are more than 17,000 police officers, of whom less than 3 per cent are armed, hardly the stuff of a “police state”. Unfortunately, the operational decision made by the head of Police Scotland, Sir Stephen House, to prevent any unnecessary hold-ups in armed officers arriving at a firearms incident has been turned into a political football.
I’ve had the good fortune to have spent time living in other countries where armed police routinely patrol the streets. When I taught in Greece, gun-toting cops would arrive, like other parents, to pick up their kids, and no-one blinked an eyelid. In Torrevieja, Spain, where I currently reside, police officers and the Guardia Civil stroll the prom, chatting and observing, just like their fellow officers in Scotland. Last year, in an incident captured on camera, several policemen were attacked by African immigrants who threw tables and chairs at them. Despite the mayhem, the officers kept their guns in their holsters, choosing to beat a tactical retreat in their vehicles.
When Scottish decision-makers whine that having armed police more readily available is somehow a threat to the safety of society, they are shooting themselves in the foot.