The rubbery slope

The Telegraph reports that rubber bullets, or baton rounds, may be used against student protesters at the upcoming march. Rubber bullets have never been used in Great Britain (though they have been used in Northern Ireland), and have only been "pre-approved" once, during the London riots this summer. Deploying them now is a worrying step towards a dangerous “shoot first, ask questions later” approach to riot control, and should be reversed.

Despite widespread public perception of them as relatively harmless method of crowd control, rubber bullets are extremely dangerous. In a study of 90 patients suffering from injuries from their use in Northern Ireland, one person died and 17 were permanently disabled or disfigured. Over 35 years of their use in Northern Ireland, they have killed 17 people. Rubber bullets can be lethal to those they are fired upon.

Perhaps such force was needed at times in Northern Ireland. But it's obvious that student protesters won't present the same level of danger to civilians and police officers as riots at the height of the Troubles. Previous student protests have turned ugly, but not on a wide scale. The types of clashes that took place would not have been avoided by rubber bullets.

The police say that the bullets will only be used as a last resort. Yet they have not defined the circumstances under which they would be used, nor have they explained why they are needed now. What is so dangerous about these students that they require unprecedented police force to be controlled?

I doubt that the police will actually use their bullets against the students; to do so would be a PR disaster for them and the government. (If they did, incidentally, it would be politically lethal for the government.) The real danger is the slippery slope that arming the police with rubber bullets sets us on. If they are armed this time, they’ll be armed next time, and again and again. The police use of rubber bullets will become an ever more common occurrence. We're already seeing this – after a history of not using rubber bullets against marches, they have been approved twice in the last few months. Their deployment and, eventually, use will become a commonplace if not blocked by the government.

There is no need for the police to be armed with such dangerous weapons against a bunch of marching students, and to do so would set yet another dangerous precedent that empowers the police to be violent against protesters. We should jealously guard Britain's traditionally unarmed police from trigger-happy politicians and commissioners.