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Crooks Are Better Armed

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"We start carrying semi-automatics, they buy automatics. We start wearing Kevlar, they buy armor-piercing rounds."
Lt. James Gordon, Batman Begins

Often in fiction and even sometimes in nonfiction when the police and crooks start a firefight, the criminals will have more powerful guns. They'll be wielding automatic weapons, and sometimes even explosive ones. As for the cops, they'll be forced to fight back with pistols.

The reason for this trope can vary. Sometimes its because its based on historical times when crooks were better armed than police or when criminal organizations like Mexican Cartels started hiring ex-special forces for muscle like Los Zetas. Sometimes it implies that the law enforcement is held back by Honor Before Reason; they could do better against crooks if they'd use more deadly guns, but at the cost of looking like an occupying army. Other times it can seem like a critique against the United States' Second Amendment; why do we let the public gain such dangerous weapons legally?note  At its core, though, it's ultimately a way of increasing the stakes, so that the viewer roots for the underdogs.


Contrast The Lopsided Arm of the Law, where the police say they're powerless to deal with criminals, but have plenty of firepower that they seemingly forget to use until the hero rallies them. Also contrast Does Not Like Guns, another way to make the heroes underpowered.

One of the signals that the work is set on an Urban Hellscape. See also Offscreen Villain Dark Matter, when it comes to crooks having inexplicable access to weaponry and equipment far more effective than would realistically make sense for them to be able to obtain and/or afford.

Compare The Enemy Weapons Are Better.



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    Anime & Manga 
  • In Jormungand, Orchestra is known to be this. They have been involved in several shootouts with police forces around the world with police officers killed due to the group's access to better small arms such as assault rifles and grenade launchers.
  • Dragon Ball Z: At the beginning of Great Saiyaman Saga, the cops in Satan City are struggling against heavily-armed bank robbers. Throughout the saga, they're also heavily dependent on Videl and, unbeknownst to them, Gohan.

    Comic Books 
  • Surprisingly Subverted (with the subversions being Justified) by the police forces usually featured in Diabolik:
    • Even without Diabolik, Clerville's criminals are violent, prone to shootouts and often able to procure submachine guns. Because of this, Clerville cops carry submachine guns themselves in their patrol cars, are very good at using them and trigger happy, and will call for reinforcements (that may bring with them heavy weapons) as soon as they expect a shootout to start. Or, if they are going to assault a criminal hideout or one of Diabolik's hideouts, they will skip the call for reinforcements and show up in large numbers with submachine guns ready, and sometimes will also bring bazookas.
    • Benglait started out playing this straight, as shown in its revolution (rather violent but with a death toll relatively low because the revolutionaries were so much better armed that cops and soldiers tended to surrender). As a direct consequence of the revolution, plus their terrorism problem and Diabolik's frequent visits, Benglait cops are now as well-armed as their colleagues from Clerville.
  • Red Skull: It's not usually played up, but in some versions, the Skull is a borderline Gun Nut. Even in those where he isn't, he usually brings at least a sidearm to the fight; and when he expects serious trouble, he brings the artillery. Downplayed in the Silver Age, for obvious reasons.
  • X-Men: Thanks to her years of thieving from various advanced races, Astra has quite the stockpiled arsenal. She defended herself with an 'ionized gauntlet' when fighting Nightcrawler.
  • The Punisher: A lot of Frank's military hardware comes from the criminals he kills, so he's at least as well-armed as they are (and he's determined to be the only one around with that kind of firepower). One story has him scope out an arms deal when a sentry wearing night-vision goggles fires an anti-tank missile at him, which leads him to discover a criminal gang getting their stuff directly from corrupt quartermasters.
  • Normally doesn't happen in the Disney Ducks Comic Universe, with the rare instances being quite Up to Eleven situations:
    • In Italian stories, the Beagle Boys will sometimes show up with Humongous Mechas they build themselves. Justified in that they use them to deal with the Money Bin, a veritable fortress defended by actual artillery and high-technology devices. In these cases the police just waits for Scrooge to defeat the mechs and call them to pick up the Beagle Boys.
    • The "classic" Paperinik stories doesn't have them normally, but supervillains capable of taking on Paperinik are too much for them.
    • In Paperinik New Adventures the supervillains tend to target Paperinik directly (aside for one instance when the Raider attacked the police because he wanted to talk with Paperinik and figured out this was the quickest way to get his attention), but during the second series there were two biker gangs armed with Ducklair-made military-grade Disintegrator Rays. Justified in that said weapons were being stolen and sold to the gangs by the company supposed to deliver them to the military, with the B-plot being Ducklair's subordinates figuring out just that and informing the Senate's inquiry committee, that promptly had the culprit arrested by the Federals just as the police and Paperinik took down the two gangs.

    Films — Animation 
  • The Incredibles opens with a police chase. The crooks open fire out their car's window with an automatic rifle, and the police shoot back with a pistol. No-one gets hurt in the half-minute they spend driving around the block firing wildly.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • Batman Begins justifies this trope, setting up a theme of escalation for The Dark Knight.
  • Downplayed in The Dark Knight. The Joker's guys have rifles and are more indiscriminate about using them. The police and SWAT have rifles, but they rarely use them. Notably, the Joker surprises them at one point by pulling out a rocket launcher.
  • Hancock: Cops wielding standard-issue handguns plus a few rifles are pinned down by a group of bank robbers wearing Body Armor and armed with machine guns and Bottomless Magazines. Hancock shows up in order to pull the two pinned down cops to safety, then catch the robbers.
  • Alien Nation. At the beginning of the movie, police officers Matthew Sikes and his partner try to stop an armed robbery. They have pistols, while one of the robbers has a rotary shotgun that fires armor-piercing slugs. It's used to kill Sikes' partner by shooting him through a car.
  • Beverly Hills Cop.
    • When the protagonist cops invade Victor Maitland's estate in the first film, they're armed with pistols. The mooks who attack them are armed with fully automatic submachine guns.
    • Beverly Hills Cop II has a final shootout at Dent's oilfield where Taggart and Rosewood at least start toting shotguns (or a rocket launcher in Billy's case). Axel makes use of grenades as well as his pistol. The Mooks are all armed with assault rifles.
    • The opening scene from Beverly Hills Cop III has Axel and his team raid a chopshop with pistols, where they are fired upon with submachineguns. Lampshaded by one of Axel's colleagues. To be fair, though, Axel gets chewed out by Da Chief for not calling in SWAT.
  • Two incidents in S.W.A.T.:
    • The Action Prologue is based on the infamous North Hollywood shootout (detailed in Real Life below), with a gang of bank robbers armed with Kalashnikovs and wearing body armor going up against patrol officers armed with pistols. A Deleted Scene has a couple of officers come rushing into a gun store and frantically ask if the proprietor has anything that can penetrate body armor. Then the SWAT Team shows up and kills the two robbers outside, reducing it to a hostage situation.
    • After Alex Montel offers $100 million to free him, an L.A. gang attacks the police motorcade transporting a dummy standing in for Montel to federal prison, armed with submachine guns and rocket launchers.
  • John Woo's Hard Boiled: Near the end of the movie, the cops surround the hospital used by the Big Bad as a front for their gun smuggling operations. Naturally, the criminals break out their armaments and tear into the cops laying siege to the hospital.
  • The opening scene of Predator 2 is an open shootout between the Los Angeles police and Colombian drug-dealers. The police are getting their asses kicked because the Colombians are packing stuff like grenade launchers and machine guns. Additionally, a reporter on the scene mentions that SWAT is having its ass kicked in a similar shootout on the other side of town.
  • In Firestorm, the Hong Kong Police Force gets severe casualties when they are engaged by a heavily armed robbery crew to the point of having a showdown in Central where they blow the CNG pipeline as a last act of defiance before the crew is taken down.
  • Up to Eleven in Superman Returns. One crook surprises the police with a mounted 20mm Gatling gun. Very good that ol' bulletproof Superman is there to rescue them.
  • On the climactic shootout of Death Wish II, Paul Kersey and Detective Ocha, an Inspector Javert cop (both armed with handguns), end up fighting a gang of crooks armed with black-market assault rifles and submachine guns.
  • Death Wish 3: The climactic shootout has Kersey and Inspector Shriker (both armed with handguns, although Kersey is carrying a Hand Cannon) facing off against a gang of crooks armed with black-market assault rifles and sub-machine guns. To add insult to injury, every "normal bystander" citizen of the neighborhood that decides to fight back during said battle manages to kick the ass of at least one crook, while every responding police officer that appears gets riddled with bullets.
    • To be fair, it should be noted that Kersey started out with a belt-fed machine gun, but there were so many bad guys he ran out of ammo for it
  • In RoboCop (1987), Dick Jones, an exec in OCP which owns the police, wants Robocop destroyed, so he supplies Clarence's gang with "the Cobra Assault Cannon", a .50 caliber rifle firing armor-piercing explosive rounds. Robocop uses one to completely destroy an ED-109 guarding the entrance to OCP headquarters.
    • In RoboCop 2, the same gun only knocks RoboCain off balance for a moment without doing any damage, showing just how tough RoboCain is.
  • Zig-zagged in Dredd: on the one hand, the heavily outnumbered Judges use extremely advanced sidearms capable of using a variety of ammunition types and firing settings, as well as being in possession of sophisticated stun grenades. On the other, Ma-Ma's cartel is in possession of three Gatling guns that they pull out against Dredd at one point. Then there's the fact that the cartel is able to bring some crooked Judges onto the payroll.
  • Silver Streak: Played straight. The Feds have revolvers. Devereau and his men have what appear to be M-16s.
  • At the beginning of Fire Birds, Preston tells his superiors that the cartels are much better equipped than the forces sent to fight them. Luckily, the army has the new Apache helicopters that can match what the cartels have. The climax has the heroes (using the Apaches) facing off against a Cartel air force composed of a mercenary hired by the Cartels that has his own helicopter gunship and several fighter jets.
  • In Cliffhanger although taking on a bunch of Treasury security men is probably no walk in the park even with The Mole getting the drop on them, Qualen's thieving crew goes above and beyond the call of duty by bringing an absurd amount of explosives, multiple automatic weapons and even a grenade launcher (that they lose early on), all of which ends up being pitted against a lone man armed with climbing equipment.
  • Die Hard: The Hero John Mc Clane is armed only with his standard-issue 9mm Beretta while the terrorists carry sub-machine guns, assault rifles, a whole lot of explosives and even an anti-tank rocket launcher (and after he manages to poach a machine gun of his own, John is still outnumbered on every encounter where he puts it to use, forcing him to keep running for his life). With this firepower and the advantage of being entrenched, the crooks manage to easily fend off the LAPD for hours.
  • In Darkman II: The Return of Durant, the evil plan of Big Bad Robert G. Durant is to invoke this by creating nuclear-powered Frickin' Laser Beams that he will sell to the city's criminal underworld at a premium rate and monopolize the illegal weapons market as a result.
  • Also in Steel, the plan of the Big Bad is to rent out (and have exclusive rights over maintenance of) experimental energy weapons he helped developed for the Department of Defense to the highest criminal bidder. He demonstrates the effectiveness of these weapons in advance by making his goons go on a crime spree all over the city that the cops can't stop.
  • In The Bullet Vanishes / The Phantom Bullet, the climactic gun battle sees the protagonists (Chinese cops during The Great Depression) armed with revolvers and all of the villains armed with sub-machine guns like Stens and Thompsons. Justified for the villains because they all work for a local weapons factory and it's showcased early that the owner purchases guns from all over the world for R&D to reverse-engineer to manufacture copies.

  • The B'wa Kell uprising in Artemis Fowl: The Arctic Incident. The conspirators backing the uprising arm the B'wa Kell Triad with highly dangerous softnose lasers, and sabotage the Lower Elements Police's neutrino weapons, leaving the LEP only a handful of obsolete electric stun rifles to defend themselves with. This example is Playing with a Trope because the modified softnoses aren't supposedly that reliable against misfires or self-destruction (a significant factor in real-life equipment selection), and a good part of their danger comes from the vast amount of unintentional damage they can do in a high-tech underground complex. In most cases for this setting, standard LEP weaponry is technically superior in almost all respects; the conspirators were depending heavily not just on surprise, comprehensive sabotage and overwhelming numbers, but on the uprising's failure.
  • There's a scene in The Alchemist by Ken Goddard where a drug buy at night is being observed by some mercenaries equipped with the latest thermal scopes, versus a police surveillance unit equipped with a couple of Vietnam-era nightscopes and unreliable bugging devices.

    Live-Action TV 

    Video Games 
  • Grand Theft Auto: When you start out, the guns you have are laughable compared to the police (and in some games, getting in a cop car gets you a shotgun and ammo). Some missions are directly set up so there's an in-story reason to get more powerful weapons. By the end of the game, though, you have more bullets than there are enemies.
  • In the 1985 Konami arcade game Jailbreak, you play as a lone police officer who must fight your way through hundreds of heavily armed escaped convicts. They have explosives, machine guns, and armored vehicles. You have only a pistol until you can rescue hostages for weapon upgrades, including a tear gas gun and a missile launcher.
  • Discussed and defied in Mass Effect, when Shepard gets involved in an operation to trace a shipment of illegal high-power weapons. The C-Sec officer points out that the reason those weapons are illegal is so that C-Sec always has the edge when they have to fight criminals.
  • The Saints and the Deckers in Saints Row: The Third have cutting edge weapon tech, while Steelport police has your run-of-the-mill hardware. Subverted half-way through the game, though, when STAG (essentially, a beefed-up crime fighting agency) shows up in Steelport and fields futuristic weapon designs years ahead of everything the gangs have (but which they quickly appropriate).
  • Zigzagged in Metal Slug: your team of mercenaries come with a pistol and supply of small grenades against whole infantries. Even if you can get a HEVEE MASHINE GUN or RAWKET LAWNCHAIR and the various Slugs later, your enemies will still have a lot of things under their sleeves. Death of a Thousand Cuts applies, though, so with enough shootings they'll all fall down.
  • PAYDAY: The Heist more or less has the criminals (players) and the cops (AI) on equal footing in firepower, but the Wolf Pack DLC adds a Grenade Launcher, which can easily obliterate the cops. PAYDAY 2 follows the same trend as the first game where the players and the enemies use the same weapons, but additional DLC adds even more powerful weapons for the players such as rocket launchers, flamethrowers, frag grenades, melee weapons (swords, bats, knives, etc), and many other weapons that the cops will never have.
    • Somewhat mitigated by the Police having access to tactics and weaponry that the Payday Gang doesn't have access to ether. The trope is still in full effect, however, in that many of the options (bulletproof shields, tear gas, tasers) pale in comparison to options the gang has.
  • Fossil Fighters: Wanted vivosaur thief Blambeau carries around a shotgun. The unarmed and largely ineffective police force send Hunter after him. Thrice.
  • Marvel Future Fight: Red Skull uses a pistol, a rifle and the Cosmic Cube in his skills, and his basic attack is entirely built around firing guns as well.

    Web Videos 

    Western Animation 

    Real Life 
  • The North Hollywood shootout: two gunmen, Larry Phillips and Emil Mătăsăreanu, held up a Bank of America. The LAPD ended up completely outgunned as the two gunmen were wearing body armor and armed with fully automatic assault rifles with armor-piercing rounds and custom drum magazines, so the cops' service revolvers and pistols were completely ineffective. The police actually raided a nearby gun shop for AR-15 rifles and commandeered an armored money transporter in order to fight back effectively (which actually turned out to be All for Nothing since by the time they got this equipment ready, the LAPD SWAT Team arrived and eliminated the second robber with their own AR-15s; the borrowed rifles never fired a single shot). After this incident, LAPD were regularly issued AR-15s in their squad cars. Many police departments across the United States followed suit in ordering rifles for their officers.
    • Up until that infamous shootout, ironically US cops were generally less well-armed than their counterparts across the Atlantic despite the fact that most European countries had and still have much heavier restrictions on weapons ownership: Whereas a typical US street cop would generally carry a revolver and keep a shotgun in the car, European LEOs generally wield semi-automatic sidearms with a sub-machine gun for a trunk gun. The reason for this was that well-equipped and organised domestic terrorist groups were relatively uncommon in the United States at the time, the Ku Klux Klan being reduced to a few stubborn and mostly impotent holdouts and the Right-Wing Militia Fanatic movement more focused on defense than offense. The same cannot be said of Britain, Germany, Italy or to a lesser extent France.
  • The 1986 FBI Miami shootout: Former Army Ranger Michael Lee Platt and ex-Marine William Russell Matix were outnumbered 4 to 1 but kept the FBI pinned down thanks to superior firepower, which was provided solely by Platt's Mini-14 rifle (Matix had a 12-gauge shotgun, but only fired one shot that missed before he took a bullet to the head and was knocked out for much of the fight). Both criminals suffered multiple wounds (Platt 12 and Matix 6) before dying, and both were drug free. This incident lead the FBI to completely change its policies regarding the usage of semi-automatic pistols,note  the wearing of body armor, and the development of the FBI testing protocol to choose a more powerful handgun cartridge (which lead to the short-lived adoption of 10mm Auto and then the development of the .40 S&W caliber, which was the dominant cartridge of choice for American law enforcement for 25 years until the FBI and most LEOs switched back to 9mm around 2015).
  • Another terrible example was the Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorist attack in Mumbai 2008. A team of ten terrorists armed with AK assault rifles, Soviet-derived light machine guns, and grenades horribly outmatched the local Indian police forces, the majority of which were armed with completely antiquated weapons such as Lee-Enfield bolt-action rifles, .32 & .38 caliber revolvers, and maybe a handful of 9mm pistols: most of these weapons were standard-issue during the First World War. As a result, the terrorists had almost totally free rein to murder and destroy for the first 12 hours until Indian Army commandos arrived on the scene, and it took almost 3 days for the last terrorist to be neutralized. Indian police underwent massive reforms and training after this incident, and SWAT Teams have been formed in almost every major Indian city to ensure a disastrous response like this does not happen again.
  • A common explanation given for this in Real Life is that police departments have to get the mayor/city council to sign off on their budget. Criminals who can't afford a powerful gun can either steal it outright or get the money illegally.
  • The other issue with averting this trope is one of public perception. Having every street cop walking around in full SWAT gear and carrying an AR-15 slung across their chest makes people nervous, especially when a certain subset of police officers start finding more excuses to use those AR-15s, as many US local police forces are discovering to their cost.
  • Linked to the budget explanation, most criminals that aren't tied to organized crime can be expected to have only legal or illegal but widely available on black market weapons. While criminals in the mafia or yakuza or drug cartels have enough money to buy armories full of illegal weapons.
  • Typically, police officers on patrol are lightly armed, with only a pistol holstered and possibly a shotgun or rifle in the patrol car. If the emergency they're called for involves battling a heavily-armed criminal, that's when a SWAT team will be sent who will have stronger weapons.
  • Averted in some high-risk areas like Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion Airport (AKA one of the most secure airports in the world), and Fort Knox, and many Army installations, where security and police carry full-auto submachine guns (and Fort Knox is right next to an Army base with plenty of armored cavalry). Airports have higher security than the usual city block, though. In New York City, the NYPD does deploy officers who are armed with heavier weaponry such as sub-machine guns and assault rifles thanks to the city being on alert for terrorists ever since 9/11.
  • This was a major issue police in the US had during The Great Depression. Part of the reason criminals like John Dillinger and Bonnie and Clyde were so successful was that officers were often armed with little more than self-bought handguns, whereas such criminals stole military-grade automatic rifles and submachine guns from National Guard armories that left police hopelessly outmatched in direct confrontations. The fact that, once forced into a Last Stand, this massive firepower would allow them to take a few officers with them meant that whenever the police had a clear shot at taking them down, they didn't spare the bullets.
  • Another matter is the fact that police are obliged to try to keep collateral damage to bystanders and property to a minimum whenever possible. Criminals are only bound by their own personal opinions on violence and collateral damage. As such, criminals are often more free to use whatever weaponry they can get their hands on than the police are, unless things get so bad that the higher-ups tell the people on the street that they are authorized to do whatever it takes to take the criminal down.
  • Yet another reason for why this trend exists in other places aside from the USA is because of dissenting political opinions on the role and strength that the police should have; the effort of avoiding instances of Police Brutality can at times make the police ineffective when dealing with well-armed criminals.
  • Sadly, this was the case during the years of internal terrorism in Perú with the police sent to deal with the insurgents, to the point that the army had to be called in as cops were killed like dogs without effective means to fight back.
  • While not a true example, NY SWAT faced off with a drug cartel while both sides were armed and armored with same weapons and armor. Had it been normal cops responding, the cartel would have been better equipped.
  • Los Zetas: Originally Ex Mexican special forces deserters turned into cartel enforcers and eventually started their own cartel. Due to their extreme effectiveness, they helped kick off the militarization of the Mexican cartels. Los Zetas are considered the most dangerous cartel and use advance tactics such as narco tanks, which are pickup trucks with improvised armor, weapons, and sometimes battering ram.


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