THERE was a tangent to the Hong Kong saga about the young policeman accused of shooting dead an unarmed burglary suspect in Britain this week. The difference was that it involved another young officer, but this time he was unable to defend himself and was shot dead. Amid the anger and dismay that left PC Philip Walters dead on the floor of a drug dealer's flat in east London, rank-and-file officers are calling for officers in the only major unarmed police force in the world to be each given pistols. We have sub-machine gun toting officers strolling through airports, guarding VIPs, watching big public events. If they are not carrying guns many police now sport big US-style side-handled batons. One or two forces fit their officers in body armour, elsewhere policemen and women are buying it themselves to protect against knife or gun attacks. There is something inexorable about it. The culture of the police force is already changing. Nonetheless weapons on policemen in Britain still cause a stir. Arming routinely would change the face of the unarmed British bobby on the beat, of a police force still largely respected and admired by the people it serves. But the officers' representatives, the Police Federation, claim the time is right for arming the average constable, that to do otherwise leaves them undefended. The Federation is currently balloting its members with their verdict expected within a month. As to actually what proportion would want weapons is not clear at this stage so let us not confuse the vociferous with the reasoned. To my recollection the last ethnic Chinese Hong Kong police officer to be based in Britain to go public on the issue returned last summer commenting on the benefits of having a largely unarmed force. He felt it led to police getting closer to a community and gaining their trust and, if firearms were needed, specialist officers who concentrated much of their constant training on the use of firearms were better for dangerous and complex situations than your ordinary panicky officer with a gun at his waist. There is nothing like the gun culture of the United States in either Hong Kong or Britain. But how difficult is it for a criminal to acquire a firearm today if he feels he wants one? Presumably in both places not very difficult at all. Nonetheless of the 34 police officers killed in England and Wales since 1980, 15 were the victims of gun attacks. A good many others have been injured. Both the Home Secretary and the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police Sir Paul Condon have distanced themselves from the calls for routine arming. 'Today is not the time to take decisions on whether the whole of the service should be armed,' said Sir Paul. We already have police cars containing weapons touring the streets of London ready to bring guns to bear in any one particular situation within minutes. The main argument in favour of the police being routinely armed is that carrying a weapon would give them real protection in incidents which appear to be routine but which turn out to be violent. The police need to be on an equal footing with the worst they will come across. They claim that it would discourage knife attacks on officers, that criminals would be less likely to resist arrest or to shoot their way out of trouble. THE principal arguments against, besides causing a distancing between public and police, are that many officers would resign if they were made to carry weapons saying that was not the kind of force they joined up to, that some officers would be physically or psychologically ill-equipped to carry arms and that officers or members of the public would be more likely to be killed in cross fire with non-specialist officers. It might also lead to jumpy officers over-reacting in situations which do not warrant such force. After all that has happened in Hong Kong and not just recently. It might also stimulate a gun culture and encourage criminals to arm themselves routinely. It is hard to say that we should send those who serve us out on to the streets unable to defend themselves. But if the tide is turning towards a more violent society then is it not wise to at least try to stem it while we still have that option?