I WAS IN A COFFEE SHOP in London with a friend when two policemen walked by. I’d been living there for a few months, but it was the first time I’d noticed.
“Huh,” I said.
“Those cops don’t have guns.”
My friend, a Brit, cocked her eyebrow and said, “Why would they have guns?”
“Because they’re cops.” I said. The word “gun” was practically implicit in the word “cop.”
“That’s the most cowboy American thing I’ve ever heard you say.”
“I don’t like guns,” I said, “but they’re police. It’s like, their job to deal with dangerous people. How are they supposed to do that without guns?”
“How on earth do you expect an encounter with a criminal to end peacefully if you’re pointing a gun at them?”
British police: We’re not the military
Not all British police are unarmed — there are those who are trained in firearm usage, but they’re only called in on special occasions. Beat cops usually don’t carry guns, and they actually prefer it that way: 82% of British police say they do not want to be routinely armed.
The British public is more or less evenly split on the issue, but it’s the cops themselves who are leading the “don’t arm us” front. And while the justification is that it helps cops actually do their jobs better, the reason British cops are unarmed is actually historical: in the 19th century, when the police forces were formed, people were afraid that cops would be just a huge, oppressive military force.
In order to combat that military image, British police distinguished themselves from soldiers by not carrying arms. The message was clear: we’re here to serve you, not to harm you.
Today, around 5% of British police are licensed to carry firearms (the exception is in Northern Ireland, where all police carry guns).
Gunless cops is not a magic bullet
This does not mean police are never killed in the UK. The country has far fewer guns than the United States, to be sure (more on that in a minute), but it doesn’t have zero guns. In 2012, two police were killed in a shooting in Manchester. But the Manchester Chief of Police resisted calls for arming his officers, saying, “Sadly we know from the experience in America and other countries that having armed officers certainly does not mean, sadly, that police officers do not end up getting shot.”
While this state of affairs might lead to a greater risk to police officers’ lives, it also drastically lowers deadly conflicts between the police and the citizenry. In 2013, US police committed 461 “justifiable homicides” in the line of duty, according to the FBI. In the same year in the UK, not a single person was killed by police.
Other countries do it, to.
It’s not just the UK that doesn’t arm cops: Ireland, Norway, Iceland, New Zealand, and a handful of Pacific Island countries don’t either.
Iceland’s an interesting example because they are actually a fairly well-armed country. Roughly 1 in 3 Icelanders are armed with hunting weapons. Icelandic police aren’t, for the most part — in fact, in 2013, the Icelandic police shot and killed a man outside Reykjavik. It was the first police killing in the country’s history.
Iceland has low crime rates, though, and in part this is because they are very small, with only 300,000 people, and very homogenous, meaning there’s no real racial tension. But the same can’t be said for the UK — it’s diverse, urbanized, and has a lot of people. So the no-guns thing seems to work across a number of different backgrounds.
What can the US learn from this?
In light of all of the recent shootings (often of unarmed black men), it’s tempting to just point at the UK and say, “They can do it! Let’s do it here, too.”
That, unfortunately, is a bit reductive — this isn’t just a matter of guns. It’s a matter of racism, of poverty, and of hundreds of years of US history. All of those things need to be tackled simultaneously.
But it’s worth noting that the image of a Sheriff with a six-shooter fighting off bad guys is not the only way to think of our police. In Iceland, offenders are not viewed as irredeemable villains, but as people who are down on their luck who need help. In the UK, cops think of themselves as literally “keeping the peace,” which is something that can’t be done with guns. Our view of criminals doesn’t have to be as adversarial as it is, and we could start to picture our cops more as public servants, and less as cowboys or superheroes.
And we can also reconsider the necessity of lethal weapons in policing. There are, of course, other methods of subduing a suspect (tasers, pepper spray, etc.) that are dangerous, but are much less frequently lethal. And considering the amount of money we as a people put into defense, we could probably develop better non-lethal weapons to put at our cops’ disposal.
We have to stop thinking of our police as mavericks, and start thinking of them as public servants. It might be a lot easier to do that if they weren’t armed to the teeth.