Should the British Police all be Armed?

Terrorists are known to select targets which give them maximum publicity and this week’s attack at Westminster in London, at a globally-known landmark, with four victims killed from a total of three countries and injured people from 11 different countries, certainly created global news.

Now, in the immediate aftermath, it is accurate to say that media companies are still seeking every angle on the story.  Here in the Border Television region of Northern England and Southern Scotland, the question is being asked:  Should all police officers in our relevant counties be routinely armed?

.        Armed Police in Newcastle (Photo: ITV)

Many members of the public now believe that arming the police would be a good thing, although it needs to be said that many were against the presence of armed officers at a 2016 Christmas Fair in Newcastle (see the above photograph) because it was so out-of-keeping with the nature of the event.  Yet it also needs to be said that such events clearly do present themselves as potential targets from a terrorist point of view.  So there is a distinct clash of public opinions on this issue.

I joined the police back in the early 1970s and from the outset was of the stated opinion that if the British police, as a whole, were permanently armed during the period of my service, I would resign on principle.

Are the British police perfect?  No, not by some distance, but they still rightly are the envy of many developed nations and iconic in their typical absence of firearms, other than on targeted protection duties.

As tragic as the death of PC 4157U Keith Palmer was, two days ago, it has to be said that almost certainly he was the only person injured or killed as a result of not every police officer at the Westminster location being armed, and it is possible he might not have been able to save himself even if he’d had a gun, if he was caught unawares.  It is unlikely in the extreme that the police would have fired shots at the car when it was among pedestrians and other vehicles on Westminster Bridge where all of the other injuries and deaths occurred, and in any event that did not happen.

Would the permanent arming of all police officers throughout Britain prevent terrorist attacks or the lone-wolf attacks of mentally unstable people?  Quite clearly not, otherwise there would have been no attacks in France or Germany or any other countries where all the police are armed.

Aside from terrorism, Britain’s serious crime squads naturally do carry firearms whenever deemed necessary, but that is not what this is about.

One key question is: Would arming all police officers reduce the number of officers who are murdered on duty?  This is a very appealing conclusion to draw.  However, based on the information given in the source shown in paragraph (b) in the below footnotes, ‘only’ about 134 British police officers have been the victims of deliberately intended deaths in the 117 years since the start of the year 1900 — an average of 1.145 officers per year.  (Note that this does not include over 300 police victims of the euphemistically-named ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland or of IRA bombs in England.)  This question therefore is whether arming all British police officers would be likely to reduce the remarkably low number of officers who are deliberately killed on what can be classed as normal duties.

Would there be any disadvantages to arming all British police officers?  Three that stand out are:

  1. It is argued, with some justification, that criminals committing serious crimes are more likely to carry firearms to aid their escape if they know the police will be armed.  This clearly increases the danger for anyone in the vicinity;
  2. As soon as a police officer with a handgun gets into a physical confrontation, there is a danger that the person or people he/she is fighting with will try to take away the firearm and could potentially use it against the officer, a particular risk if drunk, drugged or mentally unstable people are involved.  This, in turn, is more likely to cause officers to use their weapon themselves.  Again, the dangers increase dramatically.  Please view the 15 October 2016 article in the footnotes below, and you will see that in just one year there were an estimated 23,000 assaults against British police officers.  I cannot believe for one minute that if guns had been carried at all of these events there would have been no lethal outcomes;
  3. It is, in my opinion, inevitable that at least some crime suspects would end up being shot when a gun-free policing approach would otherwise have brought them in alive.  This, of course, isn’t a criticism of the guns, per se, but of the fact that with any very large body of armed officers some will inevitably interpret and apply the relevant rules and laws, shall we say, “a little too freely.”  Other countries’ police forces already provide repeated examples of this undesirable situation.

At the opposite extreme to the current state of affairs in Britain, it is a fact that in just 20 days during January 2016, police officers in the USA shot and killed more people than had been shot and killed by the police in Britain in the previous 25 years!  I’m not pretending that either country is like the other but with a population ratio of just 5:1 the disparity is so cataclysmic that in Britain we really must ask ourselves whether we wish to risk heading in that direction.

This is an important topic.  Please feel free to add your comments at the foot of this page (polite and sensible only, please).  Or just a ‘Yes’ for arming all police officers or a ‘No’ for not doing so will suffice!

Steve Shearwater


Related topic: Roll of Honour for Cumbria Police Officers


a)  How many British police officers are harmed in the line of duty?          “The Home Office estimates there were 23,000 assaults against officers in 2014/15, and (in the then 70 years) since 1945 more than 250 officers [see below] have been fatally shot… [Between 2010 and October 2015], 11 officers of the Metropolitan police lost their lives in the line of duty.”  The Guardian. 15 October 2015

b)  It looks possible that the above claim that “since 1945 more than 250 officers have been fatally shot” may be misleading because a separate, seemingly well-sourced list shows that a total of ‘just’ 260 officers have been killed as a result of criminals’ actions between 1900 and 2016 (of whom 68 officers were shot and 23 stabbed).  Of these 260 deaths, however, ‘only’ about half of them (i.e. 129) appear to have died as a result of deliberate assaults by an offender, as opposed to say deaths that occurred during pursuits.  This latter list, however, excludes those officers killed in the ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland which may explain the aforementioned apparent disparity in overall numbers.



Author: Steve

Steve Shearwater, the author of this series of books and admin of this website and blog.

8 thoughts on “Should the British Police all be Armed?”

  1. When I was working between the years of 1972 and 1995 as a P.C in Hull City and Cumbria I would have said, as many did, no to arming everyone, today I am still not sure it would be a good idea, but in a rural county such as ours with less and less Officers, spread even thinner on the ground than even a few years ago, It would be interesting to know where and how many armed response vehicles are there, and how long it would take to travel to an incident from one end of the county to the other. Fortunately I was never in a situation where I needed armed backup, but I do know even then it took a long time to, or seemed to, to get assistance when it was required.
    The other question to be asked would be is everyone suited psychologically to carry a
    weapon ? Who knows.

    1. I agree with you wholeheartedly, Keith. My main reason for sticking with “No, don’t arm all officers,” is that in the majority of Britain terrorist attacks are incredibly unlikely — they go for maximum impact, by which I mean media interest, so only the bigger cities or major events are truly likely to be targets. My answer would therefore be by all means increase the proportion of armed officers in bigger cities but I would hate to see this overflow into rural Britain, where common sense can still prevail.

      I genuinely would also hate to be on my own, in a fight with 3 or 4 drunken young men — something I experienced more than once — and have a loaded handgun on my hip! What if?

  2. Every time there is a terrorist incident or some sort of shooting somewhere, the debate starts about arming all police officers all of the time, when I was in the job as a civillian communications supervisor, some officers didnt want to be armed so maybe reporters should ask the people that would have to carry the guns, surely the choice is theirs and not one for everyone else to debate.

    1. I agree, Anne. If or when this possibility is to be properly debated it should be done not only by the Association of Chief Police Officers [ACPO] but also, importantly, by the Police Federation (and arguably nobody else!).

  3. My opinion is that any officer assigned to diplomatic or royal protection should be armed. Every single one. Otherwise, maintain the status quo, but we need more officers on the streets and more armed crews.

  4. I’ve always admired the civilized behavior of police in the U. K., and I admire your principled refusal to carry arms routinely. However, it would be silly of me to insist that all officers should follow suit: such a decision must made by each man for himself.

    1. Thanks very much for your input, David. I wholeheartedly agree with you on all except one point, namely that in high-risk areas such as London and other major cities, especially in the context of high-profile targets such as prime tourist attractions and airports, it is crucial that officers be able to protect each other, and therefore — where necessary — *all* of them must be armed for each other’s benefit. However, my argument is that in rural Britain, where risks even from the lunatics who decide to jump onto the terrorist bandwagon just to achieve 15 minutes of terminal fame is extremely low, I do not believe that all officers should be armed. Such areas are already covered by Armed Response Vehicles that can get to problems very quickly and are mobile 24/7/365 and this, in my opinion is definitely enough. This approach will enable us to maintain our face as the friendlier side of policing in such areas. Thanks again for your valued comment.

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