POLICE officers across Scotland are regularly carrying handguns while on routine patrol.
Police Scotland said its 440 specialist firearms officers had been authorised to carry weapons while on duty by Chief Constable Sir Stephen House.
The revelation led to anger from politicians and human rights campaigners, who said the force should have consulted parliament before the move.
Armed response vehicle (ARV) crews are now dealing with everything from missing persons to road accidents.
The change in policy comes despite figures showing gun crime in Scotland is at its lowest level since 1980.
Earlier this month, concerns were raised about policing in the Highlands – one of the safest areas of the UK – after it emerged armed police are on routine patrol.
Chief Superintendent Elaine Ferguson, divisional commander specialist services, said: “ARV crews have been deployed under a standing authority from the chief constable to carry handguns and less lethal weapons while on routine patrol.”
She said ARV officers supported routine policing duties including dealing with anti-social behaviour and road crime and public reassurance patrols.
Chief Supt Ferguson added: “In addition to responding to over 1,300 incidents across the force in 2013-14 in their specialist role, there have been numerous examples where these officers have been instrumental in supporting local communities.
“For example, in searching for vulnerable missing persons, providing specialist first aid skills or engaging with vulnerable or potentially suicidal persons.”
“Police Scotland are committed to ensuring that all communities have more equal access to specialist support.” Police Scotland said armed officers were carrying handguns patrol in vehicles, not on foot. Such officers are normally armed with a Glock pistol.
Labour’s shadow justice spokesman Graeme Pearson, a former police officer and director general of the Scottish Crime and Drug Enforcement Agency, said the issue needed to be debated in the Scottish Parliament.
He said: “The public needs to be asked if it is something that they want. What happens if a gun goes off when the of- ficer is routinely armed? That sort of thing has happened in the US with tragic consequences.”
John Scott QC, chairman of the human rights group Justice Scotland, added: “The chief constable should not have done this without consulting parliament.
“To have armed police officers on the street routinely is quite wrong. I am concerned there could also be an increase of illicit firearms on the street in response. What happens if the gun falls into the wrong hands?”
Earlier this month, independent MSP John Finnie raised concerns about armed officers in the Highlands supporting colleagues on routine duties such as dispersing late night crowds leaving pubs and clubs.
Danny Alexander, Liberal Democrat MP for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey, said the change in police tactics in the area was “shocking”.
A spokeswoman for justice secretary Kenny MacAskill said decisions over where and when to deploy resources were a matter for Police Scotland.
She said: “A single service ensures specialist equipment and expertise can be deployed wherever and whenever required to keep people safe and provide reassurance. This approach has ensured that crime is at an almost 40-year low, backed by more than 1,000 extra police officers in our communities.”