Chris Marshall: Why every Scottish police officer doesn't need a gun

It was the early hours of a Saturday morning in March last year when police were called to deal with a man armed with a crossbow.
Armed police officers in Edinburgh (Picture: Greg Macvean)Armed police officers in Edinburgh (Picture: Greg Macvean)
Armed police officers in Edinburgh (Picture: Greg Macvean)

It was the early hours of a Saturday morning in March last year when police were called to deal with a man armed with a crossbow.

Over the course of the next seven hours officers were fired at and told they would be murdered by their assailant, who had barricaded himself into a house.

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The siege only ended when an armed officer wounded the man by shooting him in the arm.

The incident, which took place in the town of Kilbirnie, remains the only time in Police Scotland’s near five-year history that a gun has been discharged.

That is not to say the violence encountered by officers last year in North Ayrshire was somehow exceptional.

On a daily basis, Scotland’s police officers are called to respond to dangerous incidents armed only with a baton and incapacitant spray.

A survey published yesterday by the Scottish Police Federation (SPF) found 49 per cent of respondents do not always record an act of violence carried out against them, so routine have such incidents become. Of course the survey findings which made all the headlines were that nearly two-thirds (64 per cent) of officers want “access” to a handgun and 78 per cent are willing to be trained in how to use one.

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Since the Paris terror attacks of November 2015, in which multiple gunmen struck a number of locations almost simultaneously, there has been a fevered debate in Scotland about whether we have enough armed officers.

In the weeks that followed, the SPF said Police Scotland was “woefully under-equipped, under-resourced and under prepared” for a similar attack.

From that point on, there has been a steady increase in the number of trained firearms officers so that by this summer there were around 600 trained Armed Response Vehicle (ARV) officers (although only around 400 are full-time firearms officers).

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Yet when asked about the additional protective equipment officers want, it was not guns which came top of the SPF survey but Tasers.

In fact, firearms came after Tasers, CS spray and body-worn video, something the SPF has previously argued against on the basis of cost.

Ninety-five per cent of respondents said they were prepared to be trained in the use of a Taser and 90 per cent said they would like to have one.

Tasers, which are currently only carried by Police Scotland’s firearms officers, are not without their risks.

But when British Transport Police issued all its officers on Scotland’s railways with the devices last year, the move proved uncontroversial.

The SPF argues that the current situation means Police Scotland is often forced to go from “nought to SWAT”, that is from unarmed officers to heavily armed specialists with nothing in between.

It favours the model used in Norway where officers are trained to use handguns and then carry the weapons securely in their vehicles, only to be used when necessary. Between 2002 and 2014, Norwegian cops typically shot fewer than five shots in an entire year.

Yet by the evidence of the SPF’s own survey, Scottish officers believe other measures should be tried first.

We should not be wedded to the idea of an unarmed service for sentimentality’s sake, but nor should we seek to dismantle it without properly exploring the alternatives.