The recent shootings in Sandy Hook, Newtown, Connecticut have made many question the role of guns in American society. This is a sharp contrast the Ireland where we have so few guns that even the police are unarmed. To an American this must seem like madness or liberalism run wild, but it actually works very well. In fact it is a policy that is universally supported across the political spectrum and among commentators. Instead of relying on the threat of violence, they rely upon their authority and consent of the people. As a result, the police force is one of the few institutions in Irish society that people still trust and respect.
The reason the Irish police (generally referred to as the Guards or the Gardai, due to their official Irish/Gaelic title of An Garda Siochana, “Guardians of the Peace”) are unarmed has to do with conditions of the time when they were set up. After Independence in 1921, a vicious civil war broke out in Ireland. Although it lasted only 10 months, it caused enormous bitterness and hate. While the government eventually suppressed the IRA’s guerrilla campaign, there was still a sizeable minority who refused to recognise the legitimacy of the state. To them an armed police force would be viewed as coercion and oppression, and therefore legitimate targets for violence. Therefore when the police force was established in 1924, they were not given guns (the initial reason was an accident were one trainee officer shot and killed another by mistake). This meant that although some still supported the IRA and refused to recognise the state, the police force was accepted and was not the subject of attack. The police survived and managed the turbulent 1920s (a time of great political instability) and the rise of the Irish Fascist Blueshirt movement in the 1930s.
The first Garda Commissioner stated that:
“The Garda Siochana will succeed not by force of arms or numbers, but on their moral authority as servants of the people.”
Ireland is one of the few countries in the world that have an unarmed police force, the main others being the UK, Norway and New Zealand. Patrol officers are armed with nothing more than a baton and are often lightly protected too. There is a riot squad and the Emergency Response Unit (ERU) which is the equivalent of an US SWAT team and is armed. However, there are few emergencies that require them to be called in. This system is popular among the police and none of them have requested to be armed. A poll of British police found that 82% wished to stay unarmed. Another feature of Ireland is the near absence of privately held guns. It is very difficult to get a gun licence and it would be only for those who have a good reason, mainly farmers and hunters (and hunting is not a large pastime in Ireland). It is unheard of for someone to keep guns as a hobby or for protection.
The system works because the police are respected and have strong legitimacy. Last summer I travelled around Europe and I was always intimidated by the sight of police with guns. In some countries they were so armed that they almost resembled soldiers. I would not feel safe around these officers and would not feel comfortable talking to them even to report a crime or suspicions. In contrast Irish guards have a reputation for friendliness and fairness. They are easily approachable and people you can joke with. This means they are greatly supported. You see, police officers know that they cannot be everywhere; therefore they must trust civilians to help them. No police force can operated without the support and co-operation of the civilian population. Civilians are needed to report crimes, give evidence, warnings and report suspicions (as well as not aid or shelter criminals). Therefore police must be as open and welcoming to civilians as possible. It is felt that guns distance officers from the community.
An advantage of unarmed police is that there are no police shootings of innocent people. For example the police shooting of Jean Charles De Menezes who turned out to be completely innocent. Or the shooting of Mark Duggan which sparked riots in England last year. This is a serious problem in America and most riots are sparked by a police shooting. In many working class and ethnic minority communities in America, the police are seen as oppressors who intimidate and threaten locals. As a result they are less willing to condemn or report crime.
Some might say that’s all well and good, but if the police are unarmed, then what is to stop a group of thugs or terrorists from running wild. This isn’t a hypothetical scenario because during the Troubles between 1968 and 1998 the IRA was very active in Ireland. The Gardai handled this very well, again due to the respect they were held in. The IRA even had a rule forbidding its members from firing on the police. This was because they knew how popular the police were, so any attack on unarmed guards would lose them considerable support. Unlike in Northern Ireland, the IRA could not claim to be oppressed by force, so they generally refrained from attacking the Gardai (there were some incidents, but very few compared to the North).
But what if the police get attacked by an armed criminal? The thing is this is socially unacceptable. Now you might think that it is a naive view to take, why would criminals care about what is and is not acceptable? But criminals are not monsters; they have their own sense of right and wrong. For example, bank robbers do not kill everyone in the bank, not even the security guards, though it wouldn’t necessarily harm them. Why not? Because just because they’re criminals doesn’t mean their Hitler. The death of a Garda evokes massive outcry, which is part of the reason so few have been killed. One of the last times a Garda was murdered was in 1996 when Detective Jerry McCabe was killed by the IRA, an event which is still remembered and discussed today.
If I was looking for a fight, there would be two types of people I would avoid. Those who were bigger and tougher than me and those who were popular and respected. I’d avoid the first because they could easily beat me and the second because I’d get no support and would lose necessary friends and allies (who might turn on me). The problem with using guns to deter criminals is that this forces criminals to increase the size of their weapons. This is a problem in America and other countries where criminals are often better armed than the police, a situation which will not change unless you are prepared to give every officer an AK47.
Even still according to the FBI, in 50% of murders of American police officers, the officer did not have time to even draw their gun. This is because the initiative always lies with the attacker; they can strike first before the officer can react. Simply arming officers won’t protect them. I discussed in the last posts how guns make the world more not less dangerous and the same is true with police. In fact, walking around heavily armed is very provocative and could put the officers in more danger than if they were unarmed. The simple fact is that police cannot simply repress the population through having bigger and better guns but only through support from the civilians.
The Gardai are not perfect and do make mistakes. However these are far less than those committed by other police forces. The police are reliant on the consent of the people to be effective. This cannot come from intimidation and coercion but only from genuine support. An unarmed force removes the barriers between them and the community and creates greater trust among both sides. People should not view those who protect them with fear. This respect is part of the reason why Ireland is relatively peaceful and our police are greatly respected.