A sensational armed robbery in Dubai on Sunday has triggered a public debate on the merits, if any, of allowing private security guards to carry weapons. The issue is important, but the question being asked is not quite the right one.
Armed robbery is mercifully rare in the UAE, compared with the frequency of such crimes in many other parts of the world. But let's imagine for a moment that the robbers who burst into the Motor City branch of Redha Al Ansari exchange on Sunday, one of them waving a pistol, had encountered a guard with his own weapon.
Would shots have been fired? Would someone have been hit? A robber, a guard, some unlucky passer-by?
"Security guards would become the first target," if they carried guns, Lt Col Naser Kathem of the Dubai Police told The National. That is so plausible a theory that we would prefer not to put it to the test.
Most security employees work long dreary shifts at low pay; expecting them to risk their lives to protect the corporate cash register is neither realistic nor reasonable. At, say, the 11-hour mark of a 12-hour shift, how alert can we reasonably expect a guard to be? There is also the risk of an ordinary minor dispute ending badly if someone tries to grab a guard's weapon, among other dangers.
The thousands of private guards working across the country regularly prove themselves useful in many circumstances, from medical emergencies to shoplifting. But if they had all the training, acuity and abilities of policemen, then they probably would be policemen.
A more pertinent question, we think, is this: how can society keep gun crimes rare? Good police work is one way, and stern sentencing is another. If the most likely result of a hold-up is a long prison term, rather than a table heaped with bundles of currency, then few will be tempted into crime.
Other useful approaches could include building and shop design intended to make life difficult for bad guys; closed circuit television; close liaison between guards and police forces, and finally careful training in how to respond to an armed attack, complete with frequent refresher courses, for all private guards.
Firearms and retail commerce are not a good combination. Arming security guards would very likely do more harm than good.