One of the enviable characteristics of British life has long been the relative absence of a gun culture.
The UK is home to one of the most stringent gun-ownership regimes in the world and guns are rarely to be seen in day-to-day life. Unlike in many other countries, either on continental Europe or farther afield, police officers on these islands, except in Northern Ireland, are very seldom to be seen with a firearm. Surveys show officers prefer it that way.
Although incidents such as the shooting in 2012 of Greater Manchester Police officers Nicola Hughes and Fiona Bone prompt renewed debate on the issue, there is also strong support among the public for the police remaining unarmed. So it is deeply concerning that certain Scottish officers are regularly carrying side-arms while supporting colleagues on routine duties, such as patrolling the streets at nightclub closing time. There is ready acceptance of the need for the police to have armed response vehicles (ARVs) available to them in which guns are present but locked in a safe, only to be released on the say-so of a senior officer. It is quite another matter for officers in ARVs to carry sidearms with them when supporting colleagues carrying out routine business. Yet this has apparently become a regular practice since the unified police service, Police Scotland, came into being, and not just in big cities, but also in the Highlands. Once again, it would appear, a one-size-fits-all solution has been imposed through Police Scotland.
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Independent Highlands MSP and former police officer John Finnie questions whether this has been done in response to a risk assessment, and understandably so. What is the justification for it and what degree of discussion with elected representatives preceded the change? This is no low-level policy adjustment. The question of whether the police should be armed on routine duties has been a matter of public debate ever since the first police forces were formed, and so it should be. One big fear is that if officers are armed, it could undermine trust between them and the communities they serve.
That is why there should have been much greater transparency and discussion around this change. It also highlights the need for close oversight of Police Scotland by ministers and the Scottish Parliament. The controversies about some Police Scotland practices go back months. It has raided saunas in Edinburgh which had previously been tolerated, and increased the level of stop-and-searches all over Scotland, leading to questions about the ethics of the policy, especially since it later emerged that some searches were being made up. Tomorrow, a rebel groups of MSPs on the Holyrood Justice Committee will publish a report challenging the Justice Minister's costings for the new unified force and criticising the complex arrangements for overseeing the service. Ministers and MSPs need to ensure it is fully accountable to them.
If Scotland is to have armed officers on the streets, the decision should be taken openly, not discovered by the public the first time they see one outside a nightclub.