Constable Damien Finbow says he does not want to carry a gun. After all, in the nine years he has patrolled London's sometimes mean streets, he can recall only four times when he has had to draw his nightstick to defend himself.

"If I wore a gun, I know I'd be worried about losing it in a fight," said Finbow, one of some 24,000 uniformed patrol officers and detectives who routinely keep the peace in this metropolis of nearly 7 million people, armed with nothing more lethal than a black trun-cheon."Besides, if you carry a gun, you have to be ready to use it, and I don't think I can do that."

But as Finbow and a lot of other police officers here reluctantly acknowledge, the growing specter of violence and a changing criminal culture across Britain are pushing Scotland Yard and other police agencies across the country to rethink their 166-year-old policy of policing without guns.

Last summer, for the first time ever, a handful of London patrol officers began wearing holstered weapons on their hips, and the number of armed response vehicles on the streets was more than doubled, from five to 12.

"The day will eventually come, I suppose, when most officers will be carrying arms," said Inspector David Davenport, who supervises patrol units in the West End area. "But when it does, I don't think any of us will be very happy about it."

The trouble with drugs, guns and violence in Britain is nowhere near the scale it is in America. In London, for example, firearms were involved in fewer than 2 percent of all assault cases last year.

Still, assaults on police officers in London jumped 15 percent last year, to nearly 4,000, and since October 1993, one patrolman has been shot to death and another fatally stabbed. And although police in England and Wales recorded only 6,000 armed robberies last year involving guns, that is triple the number a decade ago.

Last weekend alone, for example, armed police units in London besieged gunmen who broke into a jeweler on Regent Street, in the heart of the capital; a supermarket manager in Manchester was murdered by robbers, who forced him to kneel and then shot him in the head; and an unarmed police officer in Wiltshire wrestled to the ground a man who was randomly firing a shotgun.

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Whereas police in the United States and across the channel in Europe routinely carry sidearms, only about 2,500 officers among Scotland Yard's roster of 27,000 are authorized to use firearms, and most of those are members of special squads.

To ensure better protection for routine patrol officers, Britain's Home Office last summer authorized police agencies to begin issuing, as standard equipment, 22- to 26-inch long truncheons, which officers wear openly on their belts. These batons replaced the smaller, 10-inch wooden nightsticks that for decades were the only weapon most British police officers were permitted to carry, concealed in their uniform.

In a bid to find other alternatives to sidearms, the Home Office is also testing the feasibility of arming police officers with mace or pepper sprays, and most departments have made available body armor, designed principally to protect officers from knife attacks, which remain a far greater hazard than firearms.

"I think we all value the traditional image of the British bobby," Paul Condon, the superintendent of London's Metropolitan Police Department, said last spring. "But we have to police the real world, and the equipment and training must have some link to the real world."

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