The long arm of the law - should it hold a gun?

The sight of armed police in Brussells has got Gemma Good thinking... should the gardaí also be armed?

Another beautiful week gone by in Belgium. I have been so lucky since I got here, I think it has only rained on two days. I hear it has been up and down at home. I never have to ask but I always get an update about the weather. I thought in true Irish fashion, I would open this column with a conversation about the weather.

One thing I have been thinking about a lot since I arrived out here is guns. Strange, I know, but the first time I saw a member of the police force out here, I was startled. Sleek, shiny, black weapons hang from their athletic frames with guns resting in their hands. They wear a navy uniform with bulletproof vests and I have to say very strange looking hats. I still stare when I see them, momentarily paralysed with fear. Of course I have no reason to be afraid, I’m not doing anything wrong but it’s just not something I am used to seeing.

The Belgian police force are only allowed to use their firearms to put an end to an imminent threat of death or serious injury, but isn’t that the same world over? Yet here we are with the several cases of police brutality. The USA has the highest rate of police brutality of any developed country. It is also worth mentioning that they have the highest levelof private gun ownership. Starting to see the correlation?

It has to be a difficult call to make, how can you kill someone and be certain it is for the benefit of others? Personally I couldn’t live with myself but I wouldn’t ever be in that situation, I couldn’t make that decision. I would always feel guilty thinking that the perpetrator wasn’t well and, with the right help, they could be a completely different person. While I write this, the events which happened over in Texas last month are on my mind, particularly 11-year-old Miah Cerrillo who had to play dead while her classmates and teachers were shot dead.

Last Wednesday, when I went for lunch, the kitchen was unusually quiet with many people working from home that day. I decided to open up my laptop and see what was happening in the world. I was horrified when I flicked to RTE and listened to Miah explain how she rubbed her friends blood on herself to pretend she was dead, sparing her from being killed. The boy doing the killing was 18 years of age. He killed 19 school children and two teachers while the class sat and watched a movie.

Had the police suspected he was going to do this and been there, would you attempt to disarm him, thus saving his life with the intention of getting him help? Are you risking your own life to help somebody else? I surely wouldn’t like to be the one to make the first approach. So do you end violence with violence, opening fire and saving 21 lives?

On the other hand, killings like that of Tamir Rice would make you seriously consider the use of weaponry among police officers. In Ohio 2014, police officers responded to a call,which described a juvenile boy pointing a pistol at people in the park, however the caller stated that the gun was more than likely fake. Two officers arrived on the scene and, within three seconds, shot the boy. Tamir was 12 and the gun was a toy. Upon further investigation, it was revealed that the officer who pulled the trigger had been deemed emotionally unstable in a previous job and should not have been in the position at all.

So that brings me to my question and the purpose of this column, should police officers be armed? One thing for certain is that the police definitely seem more active here than at home and they command a lot more respect. There are constantly sirens blaring and always somebody being pulled over, questioned or chased. Not too many seem intent on getting on the wrong side of the law over here, and I wouldn’t like to chance it. This got me thinking about our own force at home, An Garda Síochana. Ireland is one of three European countries without an armed police force including Norway and Iceland. This has its benefits making members more approachable and killings like that of Tamir’s do not occur.

However I do think there is a massive lack of respect for the guards in Ireland. Their presence is almost ignored and, in many cases, laughed at. I mean, who doesn’t love a good drunken night tale where you ended up in the barracks. I often wonder how it feels to be going out on patrol knowing that, if somebody approaches you armed, there is nothing you can do about it. For their own protection, maybe they should hold firearms.

If you haven’t noticed, I really am on the fence about this. When I think our force should be armed, I think of Tamir. Yet when I ponder the opposite, I think of somebody’s loved one heading out on duty unarmed and of Miah’s classmates and teachers. To help come to a conclusion, I decided to compare the crime rates between Belgium and home. In 2021, Ireland ranked 7th in Europe with a crime index of 45.02. Belgium was slightly safer at 0.85 below coming in 9th with Italy in between.

On reflection, I do believe An Garda Síochana should be armed but only for their own protection. I think with regular assessments and training to ensure they are fit to use the weaponry, it could be a good idea. Even the prospect of them having a gun would offer them more protection without ever having to use it. That's my view on the armed police force, but I'm curious to know other people's opinion on this.