Fear & loathing: Guns and Greg O'Connor, that is

The attack on Bruce Mellor shouldn't be linked with arming our police. Instead, we need to unload and ask whether more guns and more fear of the police is really the best way forward?

More prisons, more police power, and more guns. This is the vision of the Police Association and it's long-term leader Greg O'Connor, its path to greater safety for the police and public. It's a message that many New Zealanders seem happy to hear; and if the world was more like a cops 'n robbers film or video game, they might have a point.

But it's not. It's a place of anger and drunkeness, split second decisions, human frailty and everyday tragedy.

The attack on Senior Constable Bruce Mellor couldn't have been better timed for the police propaganda machine, as it argues for more armed police on our streets. That's not to disrespect Mellor's service, but simply an observation of how the public react with their gut when officers are injured in the line of duty.

In this case the sympathy for Mellor could stop people giving serious thought to the decision by police to put guns in boxes locked in the boot of "frontline" vehicles from the middle of next year.

Of course there's no link. Police Minister Judith Collins said a gun wouldn't have helped Mellor, just as it wouldn't have improved the chances of any police officers shot, or shot at, in recent times.

As the older sister of the teen charged with attacking the Senior Constable said outside the court in Whanganui:

"What if [Mr Mellor] did have a gun on him and what if my little brother would have got a hold of that gun? Things could have been really different."

Different, better? No. Yet Police Commissioner Howard Broad said yesterday:

“We will be taking the firearms out of the station and into cars.”

And consequently, into the streets. How on earth will this make us safer? How does having more guns in highly charged and violent situations create a more secure and peaceful society?

The arguments in favour, as far as I can see, are ones of equality and deterrence. That is, 'give the cops a fighting chance' and 'if the bad guys know the good guys are armed, they won't do bad in the first place'.

The latter argument seems naive, especially given the access that police already have to guns and the high profile afforded armed police responses to crime. I suspect that a poll of those who have committed an armed crime would show that they know a thing or two about the resources police have.

I'd also ask, where do we stop? Why not give the police machine guns, if you want a real deterrent? And is the police officer as deterrent really a better option than police officer as role model, earning the respect of the community, rather than the fear?

As for equality, if this was a real priority, wouldn't it make more sense to remove the number of guns from society – so that everyone has less access to guns – rather than increase the number of guns out there? Most illegal, unlicensed guns start out as legal, licensed guns, and we have hundreds of thousands of them in this country.

What's that you say? Don't impinge on the rights of responsible gun owners? Well then, don't impinge on my right to raise a family in a society which says no to more and more guns.

What about the rights of Halatau Naitoko, shot and killed accidentally when a police officer opened fire on an Auckland motorway on a Friday afternoon? Both Naitoko's family and the officer have to live with that one, terrible decision made because of the officer had access to a gun (even though there were two expert marksmen in position as well).

With the Coroner's report due soon on that incident, it may yet cast a very different light on the desirability of more armed police.

The argument for equality is an argument for more gun fights and an escalated response by criminals who ain't gonna bring a knife to a gunfight.

Yet the argument still gets made, often by folk who argue for a hardline on minor drug use because it may escalate into more serious drugs, and those who typically argue for smaller government and less state intrusion in our lives. Do they not see the inconsistency? The police already have powers and recourse to violence than no-one else has, so why be so quick to give them more?

Stop people smacking their kids? Nanny state gone mad! Give police more guns? Sure! Why not? Honestly...

I heard my old mate, lawyer Greg King, on radio this morning saying that half of all police officers killed in the US are killed by their own guns. I've never been able to find that sort of evidence, but Richard Prebble once told me a story from when he was Minister of Police that backs up King's line.

He asked about whether police should be armed as a new minister with an open mind. The Police Commissioner at the time said to him he didn't want it and wouldn't stand for it, his reason being that more officers were likely to die, shot by their own weapons.

All of this should give us pause. Life and death arguments shouldn't be spun or made out of misplaced sympathy. Sympathy for anyone, that is.

Which is why I'm repeatedly appalled by the way Police Association President Greg O'Connor is so quick to use violence against his members to push his political agenda. Every time an officer is attacked, regardless of the circumstances, O'Connor whips out his drum and starts banging.

Yet when the shoe is on the other foot – for example, the death of Mr Naitoko – he is just as quick to say what bad taste it is to raise the issue in such tragic circumstances. His faux anger is as distasteful as it is hypocritical.

Has he given up on his officers earning again the respect of the community? On governments addressing the causes of crime? Is simply making the police the biggest, nastiest bruiser on the block really the best he can offer?

How very sad.

Fact is, guns just add fuel to the fire of crime and confrontation. So let's take our fingers off the trigger and think about where this is going before it's too late.