Police use of firearms in the United Kingdom

The United Kingdom is made up of four constituent countries: England, Scotland, Wales (which make up Great Britain), and Northern Ireland. In Northern Ireland, all police officers carry firearms. In the rest of the United Kingdom, only some police officers carry firearms; that duty is instead carried out by specially-trained firearms officers. This originates from the formation of the Metropolitan Police Service in the 19th century, when police were not armed, partly to counter public fears and objections over armed enforcers as this had been previously seen due to the British Army maintaining order when needed. The arming of police in Great Britain is a perennial topic of debate.

However, the Police Service of Northern Ireland (formerly the Royal Ulster Constabulary), Northern Ireland Security Guard Service, Ministry of Defence Police, Civil Nuclear Constabulary, Belfast Harbour Police, Belfast International Airport Constabulary, and some of the Specialist Operations units of the Metropolitan Police involved in firearms and counter-terrorism policing are all issued firearms as a matter of routine. Every force also has a firearms unit, with armed response vehicles.

In relation to specialist firearms officers, in the year 2011–12, there were 6,756 Authorised Firearms Officers, 12,550 police operations in which firearms were authorised throughout England and Wales and five incidents where conventional firearms were used.[1]

The vast majority of officers are instead issued with other items for personal defence, such as speedcuffs, extendable "ASP" batons, and incapacitant sprays such as PAVA or CS spray. While not firearms, incapacitant sprays are subject to some of the same rules and regulations as a projectile firing firearm under Section 5 (b) of the Firearms Act 1968.[2]

Since 2004, police forces have issued Tasers to Authorised Firearms Officers for use against armed assailants which are considered by the authorities to be a less-lethal alternative to conventional firearms.[3]



Ireland's first organised police force, the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC), was created in the early 19th century, after Ireland had been absorbed into the United Kingdom. Due to the amount of civil unrest and the threat from Irish nationalist/republican groups, the RIC was armed from the beginning. The RIC played a key role in fighting the Irish Republican Army (IRA) during the Irish War of Independence (1919–22), and was essentially a paramilitary police force. In 1922, the Irish Free State gained independence from the UK and set-up its own unarmed police force, Garda Síochána na hÉireann (Guardians of the Peace of Ireland). However, six of Ireland's counties remained in control of the UK as Northern Ireland.

Northern IrelandEdit

Male members of Northern Ireland's police force, the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), were armed from the beginning due to the threat from the Irish Republican Army (IRA). The first female members were armed in 1993.[4] Firearms were used routinely by the RUC during The Troubles, and a number of people were killed by RUC firearms or plastic bullets during that time.[5] In 2001 the RUC became the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI). It remained an armed police force, partly due to the continued threat from dissident Irish republicanism. Today, the PSNI have wide-ranging anti-terrorism powers through various acts of parliament not available elsewhere in the UK.[6][7] Police officers at PSNI have access to a wide range of weapons, which include firearms, CS spray, water cannon, attenuating energy projectiles and tasers.[6]

A category of the volunteer body auxiliary police that supports PSNI called Ulster Special Constabulary is also armed with the same personal protection equipment available to police officers. This is the so-called A-Specials, which consists of full-time officers who serve within their home areas.[8]

Northern Ireland also has a ballistics register, which covers both police and civilian-held firearms. It is mandated that during registration, all weapons undergo test firing and that the fired bullet and cartridge case must be stored by the police for the purpose of forensic examination. This is in the event that the weapon is used in a crime or when determining lawful shooting for police officers.[9]

There is an emerging view that the exceptionalism of the Northern Ireland police force is already fading. This is, however, not due to changes at PSNI but on account of the increasing adoption of its policing methods and practices in the rest of the UK.[6]

Great BritainEdit

Police use of firearms in Great Britain has been tightly limited and controversial[10] as senior officers want forces to retain a "British Bobby" or Dixon of Dock Green effect on the community, policing by respect and consent rather than at the point of a gun. In Great Britain during the Second World War, firearms were only carried while protecting 10 Downing Street and the Royal Family, but police were given many firearms in case of invasion. They were never taken on general patrol, partly because a revolver was usually issued without a holster, as holsters were in short supply because of the war.[11] Training for the Webley & Scott revolvers usually consisted of firing six shots and to pass, it was required that three shots had to be on target although loading of the actual weapon was not taught.

On 26 May 1940, Scotland Yard issued a memorandum detailing the Metropolitan Police use of firearms in wartime. It was decided that even though the police was non-combatant, they would provide armed guards at sites deemed a risk from enemy sabotage, and would assist the British Armed Forces in the event of an invasion. On 1 June 1940, 3,500 Ross Rifles, which had last seen service in 1916, and 72,384 rounds of .303 ammunition were received from the military and were distributed among Police divisions. Rifles were also issued to the Port of London Authority Police.

In 1948, after the Second World War, concerns were aired by the Home Office of the police force's role in another war or nuclear attack,[12] to combat this it was decided that some of the forces would be lent Sten Guns by the Ministry of Defence and a number of Lee–Enfield No4 Mk 2s. These, along with revolvers and ammunition, were kept in secret depots around the United Kingdom, so every force had the weapons close and could get access to them when and if the time should come.[13]

Historically, officers on night patrols in some London divisions were frequently armed with Webley revolvers. These were introduced following the murder of two officers in 1884, although individual officers were able to choose whether to carry the weapons. Armed police were rare by the turn of the century, and were retired formally in July 1936. However, after the Battle of Stepney in 1911, Webley semi-automatics were issued to officers. From 1936, firearms could only be issued by a sergeant with good reason, and only then to officers who had been trained in their use.

The issue of routine arming in Great Britain was raised after the 1952 Derek Bentley case, in which a constable was shot dead and a sergeant severely wounded, and again after the 1966 Massacre of Braybrook Street, in which three London officers were killed. As a result, around 17% of officers in London became authorised to carry firearms. After the deaths of a number of members of the public in the 1980s fired upon by police, control was considerably tightened, many officers had their firearm authorisation revoked, and training for the remainder was greatly improved. As of 2005, around 7% of officers in London are trained in the use of firearms. Firearms are also only issued to an officer under strict guidelines.[14]

To allow armed officers to respond rapidly to an incident, most forces have patrolling Armed Response Vehicles (ARVs). ARVs were modelled on the Instant Response Cars introduced by the West Yorkshire Police in 1976, and were first introduced in London in 1991, with 132 armed deployments being made that year.

Although largely attributable to a significant increase in the use of imitation firearms and air weapons,[15] the overall increase in firearms crime between 1998/99 and 2002/03[15] (it has been decreasing since 2003/04, although use of imitations continued to rise)[15] has kept this issue in the spotlight. In October 2000, Nottinghamshire Police introduced regular armed patrols to the St Ann's and Meadows estates in Nottingham, in response to fourteen drug-related shootings in the two areas in the previous year.[16] Although the measure was not intended to be permanent, patrols were stepped up in late 2001 after further shootings,[17] after which the firearms crime declined dramatically.[18]

In September 2004, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Office approved the use of tasers throughout England and Wales by Authorised Firearms Officers following a trial.[3] In November 2008, the Home Secretary approved the use of tasers throughout England and Wales for all officers, lifting the Authorised Firearms Officer restriction, with officers who receive training and carry a taser known as 'specially trained units' (STU's).[19][20]

In 2010, following the serious injury of an unarmed officer in a knife attack, the chairman of the Police Memorial Trust, Michael Winner stated that he had put up memorials to 44 officers and that he believed, "It is almost certain that at least 38 of those [Police Officers] would be alive had they been armed".[21] In response, chairman of the Metropolitan Police Federation Peter Smyth said, "A lot of police officers don't want to be armed. We don't want a call to arms, I don't think that's necessary."[22]

In 2013, Police Scotland was formed with the inaugural Chief Constable granting a standing authority for ARV officers to overtly wear handguns, instead of being secured or concealed, and to deploy their weapons without requiring approval and also to be tasked for routine incidents (non-firearms incidents).[23][24] A survey conducted by the Scottish Police Authority showed that 53% of the public supported sending ARV officers to routine calls and incidents while wearing a visible sidearm.[25][26]

In May 2014, the Firearms Act 1968 was amended to recognise the British Transport Police (BTP) as a police force under the Act in order to provide BTP a firearms licensing exemption the same as other police forces.[27] BTP had, since armed policing commenced in February 2012, required an Authorised Firearms Officer (AFO) to apply to their local police force in a private capacity for a firearms certificate to enable them to perform the AFO role.[28]

In February 2015, The Times reported that most forces in England and Wales dispatch armed officers to domestic incidents and other routine police call-outs based on information released under Freedom of Information laws; of the 43 police forces sent a request by the Times, half gave only partial information or rejected requests outright.[29]

Surveys by the Police Federation of England and Wales have continued to show police officers' considerable resistance to routine arming. Although in the Federation's most recent (2017) Officer/Arming survey, 66% of respondents were against the routine arming of police compared to 82% in 2006. Furthermore, 42.5% of respondents wanted firearms not to be issued routinely to all officers, but for more officers to receive training and issued firearms as needed.[30]

Legal statusEdit

The use of firearms by the police in England and Wales is covered by statute (such as the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 and the Human Rights Act 1998), policy (such as the Home Office Code of Practice on Police use of Firearms and Less Lethal Weapons and the ACPO Manual of Guidance on Police Use of Firearms) and common law.

AFOs may only carry firearms when authorised by an "appropriate authorising officer".[31] The appropriate authorising officer must be of the rank of Inspector or higher.[32] When working at airports, nuclear sites, on Protection Duties and deployed in Armed Response Vehicles in certain areas, 'Standing Authority' is granted to carry personal sidearms.[33] All members of the Police Service of Northern Ireland have authority to carry a personal issue handgun as a matter of routine, both on duty and off.[34] In all forces, use of other weapons such as semi-automatic carbines requires further training and authorisation. Semi-automatic carbines are stored in a locked armoury inside Armed Response Vehicles. Equipping of semi-automatic carbines rests on a judgment of the AFO[clarification needed].[35]

United Kingdom law allows the use of "reasonable force" to make an arrest or prevent a crime[36][37] or to defend oneself.[38] If the force used is fatal, then the European Convention of Human Rights only allows "the use of force which is no more than absolutely necessary".[39] Firearms officers may therefore only discharge their weapons "to stop an imminent threat to life".[40]

ACPO policy states that "use" of a firearm includes both pointing it at a person and discharging it (whether accidentally or negligently, or intentionally).[41] As with all use of force in England and Wales, the onus is on the individual officer to justify their actions in court.[42]

Firearms usedEdit

A Ministry of Defence Police Officer on duty with an SA80 L85A2

Different police forces use a variety of firearms. Although, for forces in England and Wales, guidance is provided from ACPO and the Home Office[43] decisions on what weapons will be employed by an individual force largely rest with the Chief Constable.

In Northern Ireland, the PSNI issues all of its police officers with the Glock 17 pistol, and allows its officers to carry their issue sidearm off-duty.

Notable incidentsEdit

According to an October 2005 article in The Independent, in the preceding 12 years, 30 people had been shot dead by police.[44] Many police shootings in the UK were carried out by the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) during the Troubles in Northern Ireland (1960s–1990s). During the conflict, RUC officers killed 56 people in shooting incidents, including at least 30 civilians and at least 20 members of paramilitary groups.[5]

"Shoot to kill policy"Edit

The national media has criticised the policies of police forces which they have deemed "shoot to kill." Police firearms training teaches the use and discharge of firearms to "remove the threat" rather than to kill. Following the 11 September 2001 attacks new guidelines were developed for identifying, confronting, and dealing forcefully with terrorist suspects. These guidelines were given the code name "Operation Kratos".

Based in part on advice from the security forces of Israel and Sri Lanka—two countries with experience of suicide bombings—Operation Kratos guidelines allegedly state that the head or lower limbs should be aimed at when a suspected suicide bomber appears to have no intention of surrendering. This is contrary to the usual practice of aiming at the torso, which presents the biggest target, as a hit to the torso may detonate an explosive belt.

Sir Ian Blair appeared on television 24 July 2005 to accept responsibility for the error on the part of the Metropolitan Police in shooting Jean Charles de Menezes, mistakenly identified as a suicide bomber three days prior, and to acknowledge and defend the policy, saying that "There is no point in shooting at someone's chest because that is where the bomb is likely to be. There is no point in shooting anywhere else if they fall down and detonate it."

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ "Statistics on police use of firearms in England and Wales 2011-2012". Home Office. 11 July 2013. Retrieved 14 August 2014.
  2. ^ "S.5 Firearms Act 1968". Statutelaw.gov.uk. Retrieved 5 January 2010.
  3. ^ a b "Written Ministerial Statements M26 Taser The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department Caroline Flint". www.parliament.uk. 15 September 2004. Retrieved 2 June 2017.
  4. ^ McKittrick, David (12 August 1993). "Female RUC officers to be armed: David McKittrick reports on moves to extend equality of opportunity to the carrying of weapons". The Independent. Retrieved 27 September 2013.
  5. ^ a b Sutton Index of Deaths, Conflict Archive on the Internet (CAIN) – choose "Organisation" as 1st variable and "Status summary" as 2nd variable
  6. ^ a b c Blackbourn, Jessie (2015). Anti-Terrorism Law and Normalising Northern Ireland. Oxon: Routledge. p. 183. ISBN 9780415714334.
  7. ^ Blackbourn, Jessie (7 August 2014). Anti-Terrorism Law and Normalising Northern Ireland. Routledge. ISBN 9781317964186 – via Google Books.
  8. ^ Steffens, Johannes (2006). The Police Forces of Northern Ireland - History, Perception and Problems. Norderstedt: GRIN Verlag. p. 3. ISBN 9783638753418.
  9. ^ UNIDIR/SAS (2003). The Scope and Implications of a Tracing Mechanism for Small Arms and Light Weapons. Geneva: United Nations. p. 112. ISBN 978-9290451471.
  10. ^ Waldren, Michael J. (2007). Armed Police, The Police Use of Firearms since 1945. England: Sutton. p. 224. ISBN 978-0-7509-4637-7.
  11. ^ Waldren, Michael J. (2007). Armed Police, The Police Use of Firearms since 1945. England: Sutton. p. 4. ISBN 978-0-7509-4637-7.
  12. ^ Waldren, Michael J. (2007). Armed Police, The Police Use of Firearms since 1945. England: Sutton. p. 10. ISBN 978-0-7509-4637-7.
  13. ^ Waldren, Michael J. (2007). Armed Police, The Police Use of Firearms since 1945. England: Sutton. p. 11. ISBN 978-0-7509-4637-7.
  14. ^ "ACPO Manual of Guidance on the Management, Command and Deployment of Armed Officers" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 22 July 2011. Retrieved 7 January 2010.
  15. ^ a b c "Home Office Statistical Bulletin" (PDF). 25 January 2007: 43. Archived from the original (PDF) on 6 January 2010. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  16. ^ "Guns for bobbies on the beat". BBC News. 23 October 2000.
  17. ^ "'Arm beat officers' says police chief". BBC News. 13 March 2002.
  18. ^ "Community saddened and fearful". 11 October 2004 – via news.bbc.co.uk.
  19. ^ "Tasers - Written Ministerial Statements Jacqui Smith". www.parliament.uk. 24 November 2008. Retrieved 2 June 2017.
  20. ^ "Armed policing - Conducted energy devices (Taser)". College of Policing. Retrieved 2 June 2017.
  21. ^ "Ealing police knife attacks suspect questioned". BBC. 16 December 2010.
  22. ^ "Police Federation". Archived from the original on 28 September 2011. Retrieved 19 April 2011.
  23. ^ "Assistant Chief Constable outlines armed policing policy". Police Scotland (Press release). 19 May 2014. Retrieved 29 May 2017.
  24. ^ Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary in Scotland (October 2014). Review of Standing Firearms Authority for Armed Response Vehicle Crews within Police Scotland (PDF). ISBN 9781910165102. Retrieved 28 May 2017.
  25. ^ Adams, Lucy (29 January 2015). "Survey suggests backing for routinely armed police". BBC. Retrieved 11 August 2015.
  26. ^ "Inquiry into the public impact of Police Scotland's Firearms Standing Authority - Scrutiny Inquiry Report". Scottish Police Authority. January 2015. Retrieved 31 May 2017.
  27. ^ "Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014", legislation.gov.uk, The National Archives, 2014 c. 12
  28. ^ "Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 - 2014 c. 12 Explanatory Notes Background Part 8 Firearms licensing – British Transport Police". legislation.gov.uk. Retrieved 31 May 2017.
  29. ^ Hamilton, Fiona (7 February 2015). "Thousands of police take guns to routine jobs". The Times. Retrieved 31 May 2017.
  30. ^ "Firearms: What is the Federation's position on the routine arming of police officers?".
  31. ^ ACPO (2003), Manual of Guidance on Police Use of Firearms, 3.2.1 Archived 13 April 2008 at the Wayback Machine
  32. ^ ACPO (2003), Manual of Guidance on Police Use of Firearms, 3.6.6 Archived 13 April 2008 at the Wayback Machine
  33. ^ ACPO (2003), Manual of Guidance on Police Use of Firearms, 3.8 Archived 13 April 2008 at the Wayback Machine
  34. ^ ACPO (2003), Manual of Guidance on Police Use of Firearms, 3.8.5 Archived 13 April 2008 at the Wayback Machine
  35. ^ Waldren, Michael J. (2007). Armed Police, The Police Use of Firearms since 1945. England: Sutton. p. 224. ISBN 978-0-7509-4637-7.
  36. ^ Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, Section 117 or Police and Criminal Evidence (Northern Ireland) Order 1989, Article 88
  37. ^ Criminal Law Act 1967, Section 3 or Criminal Law Act (Northern Ireland) 1967, Section 3
  38. ^ Common Law, as cited in ACPO (2003), Manual of Guidance on Police Use of Firearms, 2.3.4 Archived 13 April 2008 at the Wayback Machine
  39. ^ ACPO (2003), Manual of Guidance on Police Use of Firearms, 2.3.7 Archived 13 April 2008 at the Wayback Machine
  40. ^ ACPO (2003), Manual of Guidance on Police Use of Firearms, 5.6.1 Archived 13 April 2008 at the Wayback Machine
  41. ^ ACPO (2003), Manual of Guidance on Police Use of Firearms 3.2.4 Archived 13 April 2008 at the Wayback Machine
  42. ^ ACPO (2003), Manual of Guidance on Police Use of Firearms Chapter 3.3.1 Archived 13 April 2008 at the Wayback Machine
  43. ^ "Police Arms and Weaponry". All the forces in the UK and Wales are also issued with the 'Firearms Guidance to Police' manual, a lengthy document detailing the legal regulation of firearms in the UK and covers the vast range of domestic legislation and international guidance on firearms use. Codes of practice are also issued by the Home Office providing comprehensive guidance on the policy and use of firearms and less lethal weapons by police.
  44. ^ Robert Verkaik; Jason Bennetto (21 October 2005). "Shot dead by police 30. Officers convicted 0". The Independent. London.