Scottish police 'do not need' guns

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Key points

• Scotland's most senior officer warns arming police will lead to more violence

• Comments made as police officers call to be armed following death of WPc

• Currently only 5% of Scotland's police force regularly armed

Key quote

"The nature of policing in this country is very important, and there is a danger that would change if we routinely equipped officers with firearms. We showed during the G8 how important it is that we don't come out heavily armed taking a heavily defensive position" - Peter Wilson, president of the Association of Chief Police Officers in Scotland

Story in full THE routine equipping of police with firearms could trigger a wave of violence on Scotland's streets, the country's most senior police officer warned last night.

Peter Wilson said a sudden rise in the number of armed officers would permanently alter Scotland's style of policing.

Mr Wilson, the president of the Association of Chief Police Officers in Scotland and chief constable of Fife Constabulary, said the service's firearms response capability was being "continually reviewed" - but ruled out a knee-jerk response to the murder in Bradford of police officer Sharon Beshenivsky.

He spoke out as calls mounted from rank-and-file officers for a significant rise in the number of police allowed to carry guns.

PC Beshenivsky, who had three children and two stepchildren, was killed on her youngest daughter Lydia's fourth birthday as she arrived at a raid in a travel agent's shop. Her colleague, PC Teresa Milburn, 37, who was shot in the shoulder, was discharged from hospital on Sunday.

PC Beshenivsky's father, Billy Jagger, laid flowers yesterday among a growing swathe of floral tributes.

Detectives were given more time last night to interview the four men and a woman - reported to be Somalis - who were taken in a high-security police convoy to separate police stations in West Yorkshire on Sunday for questioning about the shootings.

A sixth suspect was taken from London to West Yorkshire yesterday, following his arrest in London over the weekend.

Asked whether equipping officers routinely with firearms would lead to more criminals carrying guns, and an increase in gun crime generally, Mr Wilson told The Scotsman: "There is a sense that if you start to show you are heavily armed and you are prepared to use weapons, it changes the nature of action and reaction. I don't think that is a wise step to take.

"The nature of policing in this country is very important, and there is a danger that would change if we routinely equipped officers with firearms. We showed during the G8 how important it is that we don't come out heavily armed taking a heavily defensive position.

"It is not necessary to routinely equip police officers with firearms, nor do I think police staff would wish to be routinely armed.

"Resources are also an issue, although not the main factor. We would have to maintain the sort of standard that regular armed officers are currently at, which would be resource-intensive."

Mr Wilson also acknowledged that increasing the number of police officers allowed to carry guns would increase the risk of potentially fatal mistakes.

Of the 15,000 police officers in Scotland, about 750 - 5 per cent - are trained as firearms officers. All are voluntary and most spend three months seconded to firearms duties before returning to normal policing operations.

Mr Wilson said the decision when to send in armed response officers was "complex", but insisted that fully equipped firearms teams were always sent to incidents where it was known a gun was involved, as "back-up".

The number of police armed responses in Scotland last year was 321, down from 358 in 2003-4 - but more than double the figure of 141 in 1999-2000. Over that period, gun crime has remained fairly constant, but jumped 20 per cent in 2004-5 from 974 to 1,165. However, that is still significantly lower than the 1,765 crimes recorded by police in 1995-96.

In contrast, gun crime in England and Wales has soared over the past ten years. The number of offences in 2003-4 - 24,094 - is nearly double that in 1995-96.

Much of that has been attributed to the emergence of a gun culture among inner-city gangs, particularly in London, Manchester and Birmingham.

Considering the risks, the number of officers shot on duty remains relatively low. In the past ten years, two officers have been killed and 120 injured in shootings across the UK.

The last fatal shooting in Scotland was in 1969, when Detective Constable Angus MacKenzie and Constable Edward Barnett were shot dead by Howard Wilson, a former policeman, when they went to arrest him in his Glasgow flat following a robbery in Linwood, Renfrewshire.

But despite Mr Wilson's assurances, rank-and-file officers claim that unarmed police are frequently the first on the scene of armed robberies and other incidents involving guns.

Norrie Flowers, the chairman of the Scottish Police Federation, said he did not support the compulsory issuing of guns, but stressed: "We need more officers trained and equipped with firearms, without a doubt.

"If information is coming in about a robbery and there is a suspicion that a gun is being used, it should be armed officers who go in. In 99 times out of 100, what happens at the moment is that unarmed officers are sent to assess the scene."

Police who oppose gun-carrying among officers may find some support for their argument by looking to the rest of Europe and North America, where the routine issuing of firearms to officers is commonplace.

Scotland's annual murder-by-shooting rate is 0.1 per 100,000 people, compared with 0.3 in France, 0.8 in Italy and 4.4 in the United States.

Dr Lesley McAra, a senior lecturer in criminology at Edinburgh University, said that more police should not be armed. "Only a small proportion of serious crimes in Scotland involve a firearm," she said.