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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, police officers do not 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 most of the Specialist Operations units of the Metropolitan Police 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 left 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 within 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 division. 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]

Surveys by the Police Federation of England and Wales have continued to show police officers' considerable resistance to routine arming. In the Federation's most recent (2006) Officer/Arming survey, 82% of respondents were against the routine arming of police, although 43% supported an increase in the number of officers trained and authorised to use firearms.[23]

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).[24][25] 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.[26][27]

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.[28] 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.[29]

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.[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] The following are examples of shootings by British police officers. This figure presumably excludes those killed in Northern Ireland. During The Troubles in Northern Ireland, Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) officers killed 30 civilians, 17 members of Irish republican paramilitaries and 4 members of loyalist paramilitaries.[5]

Fatal incidentsEdit

Note: the following is incomplete, and also does not include killings by police in Northern Ireland.
  • In June 1980, hostage Gail Kinchin and her unborn baby were killed in crossfire between West Midlands officers and her boyfriend.
  • On 24 August 1985 John Shorthouse aged 5 was shot dead in a police raid on his home in Birmingham. The incident produced hostility towards the police over two days after John's death when a policewoman was dragged from her patrol car and beaten by youths. Following the Shorthouse case, West Midlands police abandoned its practice of training rank-and-file officers for firearms duties and formed a specialist squad.[45]
  • On 24 April 1995 James Brady, 21, was shot dead in an ambush by police officers acting on a tip-off. He and three friends were thought to be about to steal from a club in Westerhope village, near Newcastle. The torch he had been carrying was mistaken for a firearm.
  • On 28 April 1995 a prisoner on day release, David Ewin, 38, was shot twice in the stomach by a police officer after he was spotted in a stolen sports car in Barnes, west London. He died in hospital three weeks later.
  • On 23 September 1996 Diarmuid O'Neill, 27, a suspected IRA terrorist, was hit and killed by 10 bullets when officers raided his lodgings in Hammersmith, west London. A February 2000 inquest ruled that the unarmed man was lawfully killed.[46]
  • On 20 November 1996 David Howell, 40, a mental health patient, was shot dead by police marksmen when he ran amok with a knife in a Birmingham shop and took the manager hostage. An inquest jury later returned a verdict of lawful killing.
  • On 15 January 1998 James Ashley, 39, was shot and killed by Sussex Police while naked and unarmed during a drugs raid at his flat. The officer who fired the shots was cleared of any wrongdoing after a trial at the Old Bailey.[47]
  • On 26 February 1998 Michael Fitzgerald, 32, was shot in the chest by police in Bedford after a two-hour stand-off. Neighbours had mistaken him for a burglar. It later emerged that he was in his own home and carrying a fake gun.[48]
  • On 10 April 1999 Devon and Cornwall police fatally shot Antony Kitts in Falmouth. He was reported to have threatened officers with what they thought was a sniper rifle. It turned out to be an air rifle. An inquest in 2000 returned a verdict of lawful killing.[49]
  • In June 1999 Derek Bateman, 47, of Surrey was shot by a single bullet through the heart after his girlfriend went to a neighbour's house and telephoned the police, telling them he was armed and had been threatening to shoot her. It was later determined that the weapon he had brandished at the police was an air pistol.[50]
  • On 22 September 1999 Harry Stanley, a painter and decorator, born in Bellshill near Glasgow, was walking home when he was shot dead by two Metropolitan Police officers following an erroneous report that he was carrying a sawn-off shotgun in a plastic bag. The officers challenged Stanley from behind. As he turned to face them they shot him dead at a distance of 5 metres. It later emerged that the plastic bag actually contained a broken table leg that Stanley's brother had just fixed for him. Following numerous enquiries (in November 2004 a jury returned a verdict of unlawful killing) both officers were exonerated after 6 years of court cases and inquiries. It was found that neither officer was liable for criminal charges nor would face any disciplinary sanctions. The report made recommendations to the police on the post-incident procedure to be followed after a shooting and about challenging members of the public from behind.[51]
  • On 24 September 2000 Kirk Davies, 30, died after being shot by a West Yorkshire police officer in Wakefield. He had an air rifle and had threatened a police officer earlier in the evening.[52]
  • On 30 October 2000 Patrick O'Donnell, 19, was shot by a Metropolitan police officer after a siege at a house in Islington, north London, in which he took his mother and girlfriend hostage.
  • On 12 July 2001 Andrew Kernan, 37, a gardener from Wavertree in Liverpool was shot dead in the street by the second of two shots fired by officers of the Merseyside Police Force. The officers had been called to the scene by the victim's mother, Marie Kernan, who had also requested a psychiatric medical team attend her home because her schizophrenic son, Andrew Kernan, was being aggressive. At least four police officers from the Merseyside force went to Mrs Kernan's flat but Andrew Kernan ran into the street, dressed in his pyjamas, wielding a Katana. Kernan slashed off the wing mirror of one of the police cars. After negotiating with him for 25 minutes and using CS gas, officers fired two shots. The second bullet hit Kernan in the chest and he died on the way to hospital. In the case of Andrew Kernan, the Chief Constable of Merseyside Police Norman Bettison took the unusual step of sending a hand-written letter to Marie Kernan with his apologies. The then Home Secretary David Blunkett ordered a review of how armed police were used, and the dead man's mother, Marie Kernan, 59, commented at the time: "You don't kill somebody with a mental illness. I demand justice for Andrew and won't rest until I get an answer." A verdict of lawful killing was returned by the jury at Liverpool District Coroner's Court on 9 December 2004, and the Coroner, Andre Rebello, praised the actions of the officers at the scene. The IPCA Commissioner for the North West, Mike Franklin, stated that "the officers involved in this case were presented with a rapidly evolving scenario... Firearms officers at the scene acted bravely and the investigation has found no evidence that their actions fell below that required or expected of them."[53]
  • On 30 April 2005, Azelle Rodney, from London, was shot dead by armed officers of the Metropolitan Police. In August 2007, coroner Andrew Walker, sitting at Hornsey North London, said that a full inquest into Rodney's death could not be held because of the large number of redactions in police officers' statements. In July 2013 a judicial inquiry found that the Authorised Firearms Officer who fired the fatal shots had "no lawful justification" for opening fire. The case was referred to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) to determine whether a prosecution should be launched.[54][55]
  • On 22 July 2005, Jean Charles de Menezes, a Brazilian national living in London, was shot dead by unnamed Metropolitan Police officers on board an Underground train at Stockwell tube station, in the belief he was a suicide bomber. He was shot in the back of the head 7 times. Initially, police claimed incorrectly that he was wearing bulky clothing and that he had vaulted the ticket barriers running from police when challenged, but did not modify their statement until the correct information was leaked to the press. They later issued an apology, saying that they had mistaken him for a suspect in the previous day's failed bombings and acknowledging that de Menezes had no explosives and was unconnected with the attempted bombings. Following an investigation by the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC), the Crown Prosecution Service announced on 17 July 2006, that no charges would be brought against any individual officers in relation to the death of Jean Charles. Sir Ian Blair, Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police when the shooting occurred will face charges under Health and Safety legislation from his professional—rather than personal—capacity. The family of Jean Charles has called on the government to open a public inquiry into the shooting.[56]
  • In June 2007 Anne Sanderson was shot dead by an armed officer in Sevenoaks, Kent after being seen with what was later identified as a BB gun, which she refused to relinquish when challenged by police. It was the first fatal shooting of a woman by UK Police in 27 years (and first time ever that the shooting was deliberate).[57] A month previously police officers had found notes in Sanderson's car which had suicidal connotations, but no action was taken. A subsequent IPCC investigation noted this, as well as other procedural issues in the investigation, but stated that they "did not have a negative impact on the incident's outcome". In addition, the report said that officers involved "performed their duties conscientiously and diligently" and that an inquest jury returned a verdict of lawful killing.[58]
  • On 6 May 2008 Mark Saunders, a barrister, was shot by police following a siege at his home in Markham Square, Chelsea, London.[59]
  • On 29 October 2008 Andrew Hammond, 40, was shot after threatening people with a firearm in Romford.[60]
  • In May 2009 Keith Richards, 47, was shot while brandishing a crossbow at police in Shildon, County Durham.[61]
  • On 8 May 2009 Mervyn Tussler, 64, was shot after he opened fire at police at a retirement home in Worthing, Sussex. Tussler had earlier threatened a member of the home staff with a handgun, and threatened to kill himself.[62]
  • On 28 December 2010 Alistair Bell, 42, shot and injured an unarmed police officer responding to threats by Bell to kill a woman and her husband. Bell subsequently fired a further 43 shots at officers before being shot himself.[63]
  • On 10 February 2011, Michael Fitzpatrick, 49, wanted in connection with a series of armed robberies, was shot by police in Kemptown, Sussex.[64]
  • On 4 August 2011, Mark Duggan was shot dead by the MPS, sparking riots across London and other cities in England. Four officers are being investigated in the incident, although it was speculated "in leaks from official sources to The Times newspaper... that the firearms officer [would] be cleared of any wrongdoing on the basis that he had "an honest-held belief that he was in imminent danger of him or his colleagues being shot".[65]
  • On 3 March 2012, Anthony Grainger was shot dead in Cheshire by an armed Greater Manchester Police officer whilst sitting in a stolen car. Grainger was unarmed at the time of the shooting. Chief Constable Peter Fahy was charged under health and safety legislation over the shooting.[66]
  • On 5 September 2014 Dean Joseph, 40, was shot after holding a woman at knifepoint in Islington, London.[67]
  • On 30 August 2015 James Fox, 43, was shot after making threats to kill with a firearm in Enfield, London.[68]
  • On 22 October 2015 Richard Davies was shot by police in St Neots, Cambridgeshire.[69]
  • On 1 May 2016, William Smith, 36, was shot dead during a police raid in Kent in connection with the killing of Roy Blackman, 73, during a burglary ten days previously. Firearms were recovered at the scene.[70]
  • On 22 March 2017 Khalid Masood, 52, was shot dead at the scene of the Westminster bridge terror attack, after killing 4 pedestrians and PC Keith Palmer and injuring 49 others. He died at the scene having been hit by all 3 shots fired by the police. The first bullet, which struck his upper torso, was believed to be the cause of death
  • On 3 June 2017, Khuram Shazad Butt 27, Rachid Redouane 31 and Youssef Zaghba 23, were all shot dead during the London Bridge Terror attack after killing 8 people and injuring 48 (21 critically)

Non-fatal incidentsEdit

Note: the following does not include incidents in Northern Ireland.
  • On 17 January 1983 Steven Waldorf was shot by police hunting David Martin, who absconded from custody at Marlborough Street magistrates' court where he was due to face a charge of attempting to murder a police officer. Waldorf was critically injured in a police ambush in a west London street after he was mistaken for Martin. He was shot five times, and then pistol whipped by an officer who had attempted to shoot him in the head, but had already used all his ammunition. Waldorf made a full recovery and eventually received compensation.[71]
  • On 28 September 1985 Cherry Groce, a mother of six, was shot and paralysed by officers who were looking for her son. The shooting sparked riots in Brixton. The officer involved was cleared of all criminal charges.[72]
  • On 2 June 2006, two family homes were raided in an operation involving 250 police in east London. One man, Abdul Kahar, was shot in the shoulder by police during the raid, but was later released without charge. The raid was based on faulty intelligence.

"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


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  2. ^ "S.5 Firearms Act 1968". Retrieved 5 January 2010.
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  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.
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