A distinguishing feature of our country that astounds a lot of foreigners is our traditional, unarmed, British bobby.

This article is the opinion of the author and not necessarily that of the UK Defence Journal.

But after the heavily increased risk of terrorism over the past 16 years, why are our boys and girls in blue still not given arms routinely?

Amid claims that the public want it – don’t the Police serve the public?

This would certainly be a convincing argument for routinely arming officers. A recent Sky News Poll¬†showed that 70% of the British public want to see their everyday constable with a side arm. Even with a margin of error that’s a large majority of the public. After the Manchester bombing and the two attacks in London it would be understandable if the public felt uneasy about unarmed officers when every other person could be a machete wielding lunatic.

Although it’s easy for the public to say “I don’t feel safe knowing my bobby is not armed” there is actually a compelling case on the contrary that you would actually be less safe with armed officers on the beat. This brings me onto my next point…

It’s easy to forget that underneath the stab vest and the warrant card is a human being. Police Officers aren’t emotionless robots and they often have reservations about being routinely armed. I remember reading somewhere of a firearms officer who described the side arm “like a tumour on your hip that you always know is there” and this resentment for firearms in Police Forces across the country is apparent. A Police Federation poll conducted in 2006 showed that 82% of its members did not want a gun. I wouldn’t be surprised if the newer Police Federation poll being conducted this year shows similar results. A Police Officer not being comfortable with their equipment is surely less effective or safe than the current situation?

What is commonly attributed to this resentment of firearms is the level of accountability in our policing. The UK media and justice system scrutinise every police bullet fired in the same way they do a criminals. One single mistake puts an armed officer out of a job or in jail for life. Whether you believe this is right or wrong is irrelevant, it happens. You can see why so many officers are put off from having guns.

This issue is at an impasse. To solve the problem of police officers worrying about being strung up for their mistakes, we would have to lessen regulation on the use of police firearms like in the US. This however could create a new problem of a trigger happy culture (like in the United States.) British armed police count themselves as some of the most restrained anywhere in the world, notably attributed to how restrictive regulations are on firearm use.

One possible solution is the taser. A non-lethal solution that has been deployed more and more across the UK in recent years. While it is no silver bullet to the terrorism problem (I don’t think there is a silver bullet to the terrorism problem) it would seem the closest we can get to protecting our officers and public better without putting them at undue risk of prosecution.

I think the best thing we can do is to arm (or not arm) officers on an officer-to-officer basis. Instead of blanket arming (or not arming) officers that would cause the problem of policemen and women being weary of their gun why not let the officer judge if they want to be armed or not? If a police officer feels they can execute their duties successfully with a side arm then so be it.



  1. Personally I feel 1st regulations on the actions on cops need to be brought down anyway. Are police are powerless, 2nd all cops must revive basic firearms training and 3rd if possible all police cars would carry two sidearms in a safe with the police station having enough for all it’s officers. Therefore the cop would only carry a weapon in a situation the required it.

  2. I am afraid you cannot simply leave it with the individual officer to decide if they carry a firearm or not. Just as with stab proof vests, if the Chief Constable decides that a police officer needs to carry a firearm in a particular role to carry out duty in a safe and effective manner then he has no choice but to order it. Ultimately it comes down to a health and safety issue. The choice, if any exists, is in what duty the officer performs.

  3. I have lived an worked in several European, Middle Eastern and African countries – all of which have armed police.
    Terrorism and armed robbery still occur in those countries.
    Having a gun on a patrolling officer only allows for plans to be made that compensate for those weapons.
    Terrorism, especially, takes advantage of what is known to be in the area of attack.
    The UK’s police currently utilise a small percentage (just over 6,000) of armed response officers which patrol random areas, or guard certain locations/assets.
    Although these officers are concentrated in the main cities, and around critical infrastructure (Nuclear etc.), due to their limited numbers their patrols have a randomness which makes it difficult to plan a successful large scale terrorist operation.
    Similar to providing all offices with First Aid training, it would be beneficial to provide gun handling training too, even if the training is only used to ‘safe’ a weapon.
    All in all, the best circumstance appears to be a combination of increasing the number of weapons officers, providing gun handling training to all other officers and determining what parts (if any) of our legal system imperil the police, or are make it impractical for them to properly utilise a gun in the course of their duties.

    One physiological aspect of armed police that I have personally notice, when approaching a UK police person for directions or the time etc. they will simply smile and help you.
    When approaching an armed police person, they first check their weapon is secure and act like you may want to steal it. Making you nervous, and them nervous of your nervousness…
    Not a fun circumstance.
    I would rather have mostly unarmed police that are friendly, and can call up the cavalry when they need to.
    One final point, although arming a police force may have advantages, when dealing with a well planned an executed terrorist attack (say Mumbai etc.), it would be better to have the relevant military units deal with the situation – instead of lightly armed police.
    All aspects of policing are graded, depending on the level of attack/situation an appropriate response can be better provided by the current level of armed police groups, escalating up to the military.
    This keeps the public safer, and provides uncertainty to terrorists.


    • As former- and experienced- police officer, joining the Force after leaving 10 years in the armed forces, I agree with much of what you say. Arming officers overall would be wrong and unnecessary. Arming doesn’t prevent terrorism, and yet I do think that physically our UK officers are overweight or undersized, and not trained enough in self-defence techniques. This will not be a popular blog from me-but police should not be too conscious of being popular.

  4. I am not a police officer but do know a lot and the main reason our police are not armed is that they do not want to be.

    I think there is a lot of anecdotal evidence to suggest that armed police are more prone to escalation that their unarmed colleagues and the UK police service is the worlds best in training its staff in de-escalating situations.

    The police like many other public service are grossly undervalued in the UK and the only thing that really needs to occur in my opinion is the UK needs an FBI style police force that deals with counter terrorism and all murders (The NCA).

    The local police forces should be uniformed and more numerous.

    So the police should be increased by 20% and the NCA should be increased to 40k officers (a massive increase). An additional benefit of this will be that murders and serious crime will be given more scrutiny as recent events such as Soham and Cumbria have shown regional forces do not always have the required skills or reach that a more central force would have.

    Uniformed police would be unarmed – the NCA (FBI) force would be national and armed t as a key differentiator.

  5. I think from what i read a few months ago the actual numbers of trained armed police will be back to 7,000 later next year! plus you then add the mod, nuclear site police constables and so on to those figures, so in other words will have over 10,000 trained firearms officers. To add to this comment i would say another thing to take into account is the fact that out armed police are extremely well trained in part because of there being only small numbers of armed UK police compared to many other country’s, possibly some of the best trained armed police in the world, and of course back-up from the Army/SAS when needed.

    The figures above do not include Scotland or Northern Ireland:

    • That’s all well and good but if an attack happens in say my town of Hemel Hempstead for example, those police numbers ain’t going to be of much use as we only have two ARV across the entire county.

  6. What always confuses me is that in London or any other big city it gets a quick armed response but what if the terrorists attacked somewhere else? I live in Guildford, and I don’t think i have ever seen an armed police car around here. What are they going to do? Phone Aldershot military base?

  7. Terrorists seem to be the key driver in this conversation for arming police, but being terrorists this won’t be a deterrent for the situation happening as death is no deterrent for them, and secondly they take most of their kills in the first few minutes (in London) and this is with the best response time in the country. If every single officer was armed, you’re still going to have those half dozen civilian deaths before the bad guys are dropped.

    Terrorism is NOT a threat is this country. Or in most countries. There are so many ways to create a hundred deaths in a UK city without half thinking about it, yet they don’t. They are so many ways to bring our infrastructure to a standstill with massive casualties, yet they don’t. With a dozen people you could cripple an entire county, yet they don’t. We only really see lone wolf attacks, not driven by, connected with or directed by any network Isis command structure or anything else (although they always claim reditafterwards, as you would in a propaganda war), so with lone wolf’s there is no stopping them with police, with bullets or with deterrence. It needs to be tackled on a cultural basis.

  8. GB police have no interest in being armed due to the increased liability associated with it. Even when it was evident that lethal force was appropriate and necessary, police offers are dragged over slowly over hot coals through the legal system severely impacting their careers and family life.
    Secondly it forces the government to acknowledge that GB is not a giant gun free zone and would re-open the debate about restoring similar rights to law abiding citizens following the Dunblane tragedy.

  9. Some British Police Officers are of course routinely armed – The Police Service of Northern Ireland being a case in point. The PSNI’s predecessors, the Royal Ulster Constabulary, GC and the Royal Irish Constabulary were also armed. PSNI Officers are of course armed primarily in response to the continued threat from Irish Republican Terrorists.

    Living in Northern Ireland, I would suggest thinking very carefully before routinely arming any Police Officers. Whilst armed Police Officers do provide a deterrent (to a point), the number of occasions – other than intelligence led operations – in which an armed response from a Police Officer made any kind of significant difference in Northern Ireland are few and far between.

    Routinely arming Police Officers may provide a marginal reduction in risk to the Officers concerned and that is something which must be welcomed. However, it is unlikely to make wider society significantly safer or to reduce the terrorist threat, given an integral part of many modern terrorist operations is for the terrorist to expend themselves as they murder others.

  10. Having read some of the quite sensible and informed comments here I’d thought I’d add my own.I am ex Army and currently serving in a “home office” Force….not MOD or CNC I’m not armed with a firearm. I work in a semi rural location where there are probably more shotguns than people. Access to weapons such as knives, swords and other lethal objects is easy. Local diy stores, gunsmiths the Internet all supply things that in the wrong hands can kill. Yet I do not have a hankering to carry a firearm.
    The reason? As soon as you squeeze that trigger your under investigation. I’m not saying that Police related shooting should not be investigated. However you are suspended immediately and treated like a suspect throughout. People who were not there, who have no concept of the pressures and the decisions you had to make. Then take months even years to go through your decision making process. Having access to views and info you didn’t have to hand at the time and then try to hang you out to dry. You are blamed for the decision that the suspect took to ignore any warnings, to blame for the Intel package surrounding the job, to blame for not trying every other option when faced with a person armed with a lethal weapon. That’s why the majority of Police in the UK do not want to carry firearms.


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