Europe South Asia Asia Pacific Americas Middle East Africa BBC Homepage World Service Education
BBC Homepagelow graphics version | feedback | help
BBC News Online
 You are in: Talking Point
Front Page 
UK Politics 
Talking Point 
In Depth 

Monday, 12 February, 2001, 13:23 GMT
Should British police carry guns?

Britain has a long tradition of unarmed police officers walking the beat with only a truncheon for protection - so the decision to introduce armed patrols on some inner-city housing estates in Nottingham has caused consternation.

The days of Dixon of Dock Green may be long gone, but is this a symbolic moment in Britain's drift towards gun crime?

The police in Nottingham have downplayed suggestions that it is the start of a process that will end with all street patrols being routinely armed. They say move has been targeted at specific areas, with the intention of reassuring the public and sending a strong message to young criminals not to use guns.

But is the unarmed British bobby outdated? After all, armed police are a common sight in many other countries. Should British police carry guns to protect themselves and us? Or could this make it more likely criminals will arm themselves?

This Talking Point is part of a week of a series of crime specials. Click to read your comments on Yob Culture, Tagging, Miscarriages of justice, Organised Crime, Cybercrime and Drugs policy.

This Talking Point is now closed. A selection of your e-mails are posted below.

The Association of Chief Police Officers were at the forefront of persuading the Government to ban all legally owned handguns in UK. These handguns were used by target shooters who posed no threat to our society, yet the ACPO categorically stated that a total ban would reduce armed crime. So, why is there now a routine need to arm the police if the threat has been removed? Surely we should now expect less incidences of Armed Police, not more.
Peter Goff, UK

If police work is now more risky than previously, the police should be somehow compensated for this additional risk factor

John Gant, UK
I am against the routine arming of the Police in Britain. Being a member of the police force is a risky occupation, and the police deserve all the support they can get from the public in general. However, the methods they employ, and the equipment they use must be acceptable to our society. If police work is now more risky than previously, the police should be somehow compensated for this additional risk factor. If being unarmed is deemed to present an unacceptable risk, then those who feel so should exercise their right to choose another profession.
John Gant, UK

To carry firearms is not to say that police are obligated to use them everyday. It may however allow a police officer faced with deadly violence to protect him or her self, allowing them to return to family, loved ones and friends at the end of each working day
Tom Burns, Australia

A better question to ask would probably be: Should only criminals carry guns? Steve, from England, posted that what is needed is a "Dirty Harry" style large handgun that will not over penetrate and will knock a criminal backwards. This dramatic "knocking back" of an assailant is a Hollywood invention, nothing more. If a shot is effective and hits the right organs, the target will merely crumple to the ground. Watch real world footage of shootings for the truth of this. I saw footage of a criminal being shot in South America at a range of two feet with a shotgun. It wasn't like the movies.
A. Carrier, USA

The cops here in the USA carry guns just to be ready for the unexpected

Brian, USA
The bobbies should carry guns because they'll get into a situation that could turn dangerous in any given second. The cops here in the USA carry guns just to be ready for the unexpected, whether on duty or not.
Brian, USA

In some areas police are responsible for as much crime as they solve, while in others rearranged evidence locks up many for long periods unjustly. So far those who complain are fitted up and locked up, give them guns and they will just shoot us. Before any discussion of giving them guns can take place we need a major clean up on corruption.
Keith, UK

Police weapons add fuel to the gun culture

Peter Pennington, USA
There is no evidence that carrying weapons openly by the police would deter hooligans from having their own weapons. In the US the opposite is apparent: police weapons add fuel to the gun culture. The answer must be in better police intelligence in getting at the suppliers, better education for youngsters and breaking up the gangs. One way to tackle that is to break up the housing estates where the gangs breed and fester. The final decision on carrying weapons openly should not rest with the local police force. There is too much at stake about the British way of life and the police force is too close to the 'coal face' to see the wider issues.
Peter Pennington, USA

I am an ex New Zealand police officer of 13 years who was armed on a number of occasions. Like the English police we do not have a general arming of our police. However unfortunately the time has come where both the English and NZ police should arm themselves to protect a public who are becoming innocent targets/victims in driveby shootings (Manchester is an example I believe), South Auckland is a NZ example...and just as important so the police may protect themselves...we have rural police who carry a pistol in a locked metal box in the car - this at least should be done in England as well.
Kevin, New Zealand

Good God, no! you can't command respect by intimidation. So far, the public feel at one with the police and the authority they have is based on public trust in their regulations entrusted to them. That is not only a credit to the police but to the whole British legal system, surely it would be a shame to forsake that for intimidation.
Tina-Marie , UK

In reply to BJ in the USA -- I too live in the US, what good has arming the general public done here? This is a country riddled with crime, where innocent adults and children die every day because of gun ownership. The UK should never make the same mistake that the US has.
Jni Bonanno, Brit living in the USA

I think that the police should be armed as it is a deterrent. I was going to join the police force but thought that Britain today is just too violent. Maybe if I had been offered the protection of being armed I might have changed my mind.
Steph, England

New Zealand police are not routinely armed

Paul H, NZ
In response to a couple of comments: New Zealand police are not routinely armed either. Lone patrol officers have guns in their vehicles, as do some in "high risk areas", the diplomatic protection squad carry guns, and there is a special Armed Offenders Unit. The latter are very highly trained, not only with firearms, but also negotiation skills etc. Yes, police do get injured and shot occasionally (we have a very high gun ownership, but strict laws), but I would not want the police to be routinely armed.
Paul H, NZ

I feel that the issue is not whether the police should have guns. Instead we should look at what's happened to make the police need them in the first place.
Chris Kitchener (18), UK

It's a very bad sign when the Government doesn't trust its own subjects to have guns (knee-jerk handgun ban), and wants to arm its own civil forces more heavily. We're halfway there, let's not complete the journey.
Mike Ross, Brit in the USA

Please don't arm the British Police! What Natalie from Australia has forgot to mention is the spreading American gun culture here. The average Australian policeman is unapproachable and sadly leans towards an "Us and Them" mentality. Armed police haven't reduced crime here, now criminals just shoot back or shoot first. Worse still the mentality is now dwindling down to security guards who are armed and we now see shopping centre security guards wearing flack gear and batons to look menacing - most of them are kids in their mid-twenties. Let us hope that England doesn't drops to this level. The police there are the most approachable and respectable I have ever come across in my worldly travels, that show genuine concern for the public and can be relied upon to do the right thing. You do not need another force of "gun totting cowboys" whereby the public looses confidence in them. Guns are never the answer.
Michael, Australia

A sensible national policy is to use arms to serve and protect

Yes, the British police should be authorised to carry guns, and law-abiding members of the public should be allowed rifles and handguns for personal protection and sporting pursuits also. Why? We already know there is an armed criminal element in our midst and that attacks on minorities in the new "softer, kinder, gun-controlled" Britain have increased. The situation with gun crimes in the USA is unique and triggered (no pun intended) due to the glorification of guns and violence in the media. A sensible national policy is to use arms to serve and protect, but not to worship them or glorify their use.

For heavens sake no! I travel the world on a regular bases and have to say that our unarmed police force is an envy to the rest of the world. We already have special armed response units, do we really need more? Let us not be fooled by the fact that police carry guns in other countries that this means it is good thing.
Dan, England

I'm from Bucks, but have lived eight years in Green Bay, Wisconsin USA. Back in Britain in my youth, police only commanded respect (versus dislike) if they looked physically big enough to intimidate you. In the States, even the most diminutive female cop commands respect/wariness due to being armed. However, I have never witnessed a cop draw their weapon here yet. They are also very respectful (if a little direct) but that's the style of training. Having a gun by your side is not confrontational if the right attitude goes along with it. I think it's time British bobbies are armed to get back a little respect.
Darren, USA/UK

I think the root of the issue is with the public. More and more the public in the UK are willing to turn a blind eye to neighbours who flaunt the law, carry knives, or guns. We are seeing a progressive acceptance that society is becoming more violent. This is partly due to the media increasing awareness and distorting reality. Violent crime is not the norm. Lets not make it seem as it is, so that people are not afraid of addressing it.
Chris, USA/UK

As an ex-Met policeman and having three close colleagues killed during my 9 years service as well as those seriously injured, it is about time the police in the UK were armed

David, Australia, ex Met Police
As an ex-Met policeman and having three close colleagues killed during my 9 years service as well as those seriously injured, it is about time the police in the UK were armed. We had a nation wide survey of police in my time and the majority of Met officers wanted to be routinely armed. It's time we shook the 'British Bobby' tag and became a law enforcement body rather than a tourist attraction.
David, Australia, ex Met Police

The police should not be armed as a matter of course. If all police officers carry guns, then more and more criminals will resort to carrying guns for the most minor of crimes. However, I do agree with the specific placing of armed units - this is nothing new and certainly did not start with Nottingham. Just got to Northern Ireland or to any sizeable airport.
MDS, UK/Germany

Some people are suggesting we should ask the Police whether they want guns or not; however, equally important, or even more important, is to ask those being policed. I live in the UK, I do not want a UK police force armed.
Gerry, Scotland

I am not in favour of the police becoming a paramilitary force, in the way they exist in some countries. The routine arming of the police would spectacularly increase the potential for miscarriages of justice. We are not talking about the rights of criminals (though unlike some writing to this forum I do believe that they do have rights), but the rights of each and every one. When police are armed we will see more police killings, which in turn will become more acceptable. With this increase, the rigour in which such killings are investigated will decrease, resulting in Britain not only have an unofficial death penalty, but also one applied in the heat of the moment without reference to any system of trial.
Andrew Bartlett, UK

I think it's a good and a bad thing. It's good for their protection but it can be bad because they might be a bit to trigger happy at times...
Johan, UK

If a police officer works in a situation that benefits from him having a gun, yes, he should have it. But having guns just out of principle is costly and unnecessary.
Edward, UK

I dread to think what would happen if those I had to deal with as a kid were suddenly in possession of firearms

Tim Hale, England
As a teenager growing up in England I found myself on the receiving end of some pretty rough treatment at the hands of Police officers, despite the fact that I have no criminal convictions. I dread to think what would happen if those I had to deal with as a kid were suddenly in possession of firearms.
Tim Hale, England

Criminals are now armed . They know they cannot be executed for murder no matter what happens . How else do you discourage them from having a go, at a policeman or anyone else , with a knife or a gun ? You either bring back the death penalty or you give the police a martial edge by giving them superior weapons and training in their use . This of course means that inevitably , sooner or later , the wrong person will die on the street instead of at the end of a rope . If you don't have the rope then you have to have the gun .
James Bruce REID, Scotland

Think about if the police are not armed with guns, how could they protect themselves and people while modern bad guys almost have weapons in their hand
Kullamas, Thailand

One small point - the civil liberty brigade are not "one the side of the criminals" any more than defence lawyers are. In Western society we all have the right to be presumed innocent and we are all entitled to be treated that way. That goes for arming the police too. If I get drunk and wave a water pistol around on a dark night, I should reasonably expect to be arrested for be drunk and disorderly. Arm the police routinely and the first bobby on the scene will come over all John Wayne and I'll end up in the morgue. Leave it to specialist armed teams.
Julian, Wiltshire UK

Don't we already have SWAT teams? Anyway, when we need armed police, which is rare, do they fire their weapons? No. I think the only time that there has been a proper need for the use of force requiring guns was the Iranian Embassy siege. Even then that wasn't all carried out by the police, it was the SAS, so do they need to be armed? ONLY in areas that are of high risk and for specialist raids. Otherwise we will get trigger happy police and statistics like America, no thanks. This country is Americanised enough.
Tom O'D, UK

All other police forces in the EU are armed, time for the UK to grow up

John C, Sweden
I`m surprised that if 42% of police felt they were in a life threatening situation recently that so few would accept the ability to protect themselves properly. Britain is too conservative. The days of Z Cars are over. If criminals are armed , albeit more to protect themselves from rivals than the police how are the PC`s to have the confidence to tackle these people ?. All other police forces in the EU are armed, time for the UK to grow up. I doubt whether more criminals would arm themselves. But its a difficult situation because of the so-called tradition.

Living in a country where its police are routinely armed, I believe there is no definable increase in the incidence of violence toward or by police where firearms are involved. The difference is, Australian police are more likely to be going home to their loved ones after a confrontation that UK officers. You would not expect the plumber to turn up to fix a flooded bathroom without the tools of his trade, so why expect the police to continually become involved in violent situations with "one hand tied behind their backs". Being a tool of last resort, and given proper training, we don't seem to have any gung-ho police.
Joseph, Australia

I believe the time has come that all police should be armed. As a student at the LSE, I have learned that the rates of robbery, assault, and theft, are more than double the rate in America. This is a sad state of affairs. Police must be able to defend themselves, and therefore must be armed.
Steven R Glaspey, UK (London)

There were over 4,000 registered gun crimes last year in the UK. That's not a small number given the illegality of firearms. Criminals already have access to guns and the reason they have them is because it gives them the "bigger stick" mentality. At the moment it doesn't matter if you have 20 unarmed police officers, they are all useless against one criminal with a gun. Forget comparisons with the U.S., we're not talking about the general public's right to bear arms, we're talking about allowing the police to protect themselves and members of the public. Unfortunately the liberals and left wingers will be dismayed about their darling criminals having to face police with firearms but I was under the (obviously mistaken) impression that the potential victims should have the greater rights not the criminal on the other end of the shotgun.
Tristan Abbott-Coates, UK/USA

Traditions are all very well, but when they are no longer appropriate to the prevailing conditions then they should be reviewed

Peter, Netherlands
Traditions are all very well, but when they are no longer appropriate to the prevailing conditions then they should be reviewed. I am aware of no other country where the police are not armed with lethal weapons. Here in the Netherlands, before they had guns, they carried swords. Finally, let us not forget that not only armed criminals with guns pose a danger to the police: so do, for example, protesters wielding lethal weapons such as catapults, slingshots, molotov cocktails and bricks.
Peter, Netherlands

Why do the British police need to carry guns? I thought that that the British Government had banned all gun ownership. So if the guns have been banned the police do not need them
Sam Cox, USA

I am a Division Commander in a Police agency and served my first 20 years in a tactical division. A police officer must hold the line in society. If the criminals are armed the only response is to not only be armed as well but to hold superior fire power. At the end of the day a police officer must be alive to go home to his family and the public must be protected. No society can allow thugs to hold the high ground advantage. Arm the UK police forces before you are playing catch up to a better-armed criminal element.
Jeffrey L. Endean, USA

I am glad they carry a weapon

Verne Schoonover, USA
Let John, Chris, and Dave wear the blue for a week and then ask them again. I have two brothers and had two sons-in-law that are officers and one son-in-law was killed in the line of duty and not by a gun. I am glad they carry a weapon, it would be like being in a pig pen without a fly swatter.
Verne Schoonover, USA

I am a British citizen living in the USA. I moved here 1991. While I lived in England I held a firearms certificate and at one point owned 18 firearms. Amongst the membership of several shooting clubs I was a member of, there was always a healthy respect for the police. None of us wanted to live in a country where we had an "armed police force". Since my arrival in the USA I have lost my interest in shooting, because firearms are mostly common household items, along with knives, forks and spoons. Firearms tend to be the first resort of the police not the last. In their defence I will say that there is a trend away from this. However, they have a long way to go. In conclusion I am proud to say that Britain does not have an armed police force on the beat, and hope we never have the need for one
Sean Boynton, USA

Please don't arm the British Police, they are possibly the most approachable police I have met anywhere in the world, along with perhaps unarmed the New Zealand and Australian police. The more you arm the police the more likely there is to be a shoot-out, just look at the appalling US statistics and the dreadful accidents and mistaken shootings of innocent civilians that have occurred. Arming the police will only add fuel to the cycle of gun violence.
John, USA

What about if a person is shot dead by the police, only to be exonerated from the crime later?

Chris Murphy, UK
The short answer is no. Some contributors seem to believe that criminals would get what they deserved, in which case why not go further and bring back hanging? What about if a person is shot dead by the police, only to be exonerated from the crime later? The police have a tough enough job as it is without having to partake in shootouts and armed chases like in America.
Chris Murphy, UK

Has anyone here thought of asking the police what they want? After all they are the ones in the front line.
Simon Dicker, USA/UK

Guns kill people, including police. Yet, there are those who think that a 'gun' is as necessary as a telephone. And, that is disturbing. I say 'NO' to Police carrying guns and stricter 'gun control'. It will save lives.
Dave Adams, USA

I don't like the idea but I think it's inevitable. We do have to consider what they will be armed with. The machine guns we see the police with at airports and, occasionally, railway stations are overkill. What is needed it a heavy duty handgun of the 'Dirty Harry' magnum variety. The bullet stops in the target expending all its energy there and throws the criminal backwards and doesn't present the same collateral danger to the public.
Steve, England

Just because the individual policeman on the street does not carry a sidearm does not mean the British police are not already heavily armed

B Maguire, UK
Most of the world still thinks the British police are unarmed. This is simply not true. Just because the individual policeman on the street does not carry a sidearm does not mean the British police are not already heavily armed. There are very few policemen walking the streets now anyway, they're all in cars and they do carry weapons.
B Maguire, UK

There are already police forces in the UK that routinely carry firearms, has everyone forgotten about Ulster? If you believe Thatcher's line that the IRA and the UVF are just "common criminals," then why is it fine to arm against common criminals in one part of the country and not the rest?
Thomas Byrne, USA

The financial pressure that the service is under will probably lead to officers not being trained in procedures to a high enough standard and this will lead to accidents. As a holder of a shotgun certificate and a section 1 firearms licence, I know how dangerous these weapons can be but in the right hands - trained hands - they can be an effective tool.
David, UK

Criminals are already armed

Phil, UK
Criminals are already armed. Therefore an armed police force is inevitable and increasingly needed. Because of the long-term issues of recruitment, screening, training etc involved, the police must accept this. Then the (necessary) change to a fully armed police force can be done in a calm, controlled, properly managed way rather an as a panic measure following a criminal gun outrage.
Phil, UK

FACT: No matter how many gun laws you pass, criminals will always have access to, and use guns.
FACT: When an unarmed police officer is in a confrontation with an armed criminal, the police officer will lose.
FACT: My sister is a police officer in the British Transport Police. She has been physically assaulted NUMEROUS times by various hoodlums - something that is almost unheard of in countries that arm their policemen/women.
So, those who argue that arming bobbies will "just encourage the criminals," come along to the funeral of the next shot copper - sacrificed at the altar of those who cherish the image of the friendly truncheon-equipped British Bobby, wobbling along the village street on his bicycle.
Andrew Crane, USA (formerly UK)

The police should be armed in places where crime is high or there is a known drugs problem in the area. Arming every officer in the country is not a good idea. If an officer has to patrol an area which is rife in crime, it makes sense for him to be armed for his own safety and that of the law-abiding people caught up in these areas. Like one of the other respondents, I do not care for the well being of armed criminals (kids or adults) but, the police still need to be approachable by normal citizens.
Graeme, Germany (ex-UK)

This isn't the best solution. If there are increasing numbers of armed criminals, increase the availability and resources of armed response units. Look at America. More Americans than ever are questioning their right to bear arms. Britain's bobbies are friendly and approachable. Anybody carrying a firearm instantly becomes intimidating and cannot blend with the community. Britain is not a gun toting country and it should stay that way.
Paul, UK

Routinely? No. Special armed divisions for specific incidents etc.? Yes.
James G, UK

I am not overly concerned with the safety of criminals

Gavin, Scotland
Will criminals really think 'Oh no, the police have guns. Better get myself one?' The majority of gun crimes (and accordingly those who own illegal guns) are linked to drugs and gangs. These people already possess, and use, firearms and the police should be capable of combating this effectively - not easy with a truncheon. Arm the police, I am not overly concerned with the safety of criminals!
Gavin, Scotland

Surely the issue is to stop criminals carrying weapons in the first place? Choke off the supply of illegal weapons and make the jail sentence for carrying a weapon extremely severe. The police are only reacting to a threat that has got out of normal control. I don't think any policeman in his right mind would look forward to being routinely armed.
Graeme Hill, UK

Until to Courts have the courage to sentence criminals to longer periods for their crimes and keep them off the streets crime will continue to increase and the police may have no choice but to carry guns
Reg, UK

Police in Belgium, where I live, are armed - and feared. Most of them look like something out of an American cartoon, but that is beside the point. British police are trusted and respected by the public. Those in London and other cities who need an armed response vehicle can call one up. This works very well in Britain, and I hope it stays that way.

Here in Belgium, transport police in the metro also carry guns! Can you image? The most likely criminal they face is someone without a ticket (ok, there's a bit of fighting now then, but you don't need a gun to control that). The transport policemen and women are also a body apart - not the kind of people you'd asked where to change trains. Don't let it happen in Britain.
John M. Jones, Belgium/UK

I wouldn't trust the majority of policemen with a water pistol, let alone a gun! Many just do not have the maturity. The best thing to do would be to increase the number of armed response units, staffed with the cream of the force. The rest should stick to stopping innocent motorists for no apparent reason, which seems to be the raison d'etre of the modern police force!
Mark B, UK

Most criminals within the UK are armed especially within certain areas (usually associated with drug wars). The police have the right to defend themselves. Armed units cannot respond quickly enough to most situations. The reasoning that once the police start to carry guns so will criminals as proposed by Phil doesn't hold water as a lot of criminals are already armed.

Stick with the batons!

Phil W, UK
If you give every bobby a gun then it will be even more reason for anyone who is likely to get in to trouble with the police to carry one also. Stick with the batons!
Phil W, UK

I do not believe that British police should routinely carry guns, though they should obviously have access to them if the situation demands. Besides, most crimes in the UK seems to be carried out by out-of-control kids and as tempting as it might be, shooting them is not the answer!
Mark M. Newdick, USA/ UK

I work across the road from one of the areas that is patrolled by armed police. I feel safer knowing that the armed criminals running these areas are up against armed police. Every other day in the local news shootings are reported so who (other than the civil liberty brigade on the side of the criminals) would expect the police to manage these areas, armed only with a truncheon and a few harsh words?
Ian, Nottingham, England

Firearms are not required and add unnecessary risk of injury or loss of life

Russell Long, UK
Absolutely not. Firearms are not required and add unnecessary risk of injury or loss of life. As we all know, it works beautifully in the US where everyone carries guns (and their murder rate is so low), but it would be wrong to introduce mandatory firearms control. It's just not necessary. Whilst criminals do increasingly carry firearms, Britain's guns laws are tight enough so that it is ONLY criminals that carry firearms and those weapons are by their very nature illegal. If the police routinely carry weapons, those they seek to apprehend will start to do the same.
Russell Long, UK

Until police attitudes and competence improve a 1000 fold they must not be armed. Bearing in mind that the police are only good at targeting speeding motorists what do they need a gun for anyway, to shoot the tyres?
Philip Levy, UK

I believe that we indeed do require a stronger presence of police in this country, but it should be by numbers in force, rather than by force of bullet.
David M. Fellows, UK

It's a shame, but being realistic guns are the next weapon we will see being strapped to our Bobbies! The crime rate is up and so is violence. It may well encourage the criminals to carry guns, but they do that anyway. The police force is no longer a popular job in England because of the possible dangers. So yes, why not protect our police and keep our streets safer. The only people who should be worried are the ones who are likely to break the law!!
Sha, UK

There's no point at all in the police carrying guns unless the law is on their side if they ever need to be used. Currently if an armed criminal shoots a police officer their widow gets a pat on the head and pension and the matter is dropped. If an armed police officer shoots a criminal all hell breaks loose, the officer is suspended and the chances are the family of the criminal will get a huge compensation payout. Personally, I would like the police to carry guns and shoot on sight any person caught spraying graffiti, vandalising or spitting chewing gum in the street.
John B, UK

In Australia all members of the police force carry guns and personally I feel safer with this

Natalie, Aussie in UK
When I first came over to the UK I couldn't believe that the police do not carry guns, and just have a baton to protect themselves and the public. I strongly believe that guns should be carried by all the police force, not only to protect themselves, but also the public. I don't believe that introducing guns will encourage criminals to arm themselves, because if they wanted to they could do it anyway. In Australia all members of the police force carry guns and personally I feel safer with this. There is no more, probably less crime on the street in Oz, and it may be that criminals are deterred because police can carry and use guns if necessary.
Natalie, Aussie in UK

And continue the Americanisation of the UK? I sincerely hope not.
Arvind, UK

It stands to reason that once the police start routinely carrying guns, then so will the criminals. Currently the police have access to armed units when they are required, and I see no reason why this should be changed.
Phil, UK

Search BBC News Online

Advanced search options
Launch console

Links to more Talking Point stories