The UK’s fear of firearms, and potential weapons of all kinds, is well-documented. Subjects are urged not to carry any item, such as pepper spray, that might be adapted for self-defense. Officers take to social media to boast of “weapons sweeps” that turn up old kitchen knives, baseball bats, and sharpened sticks. In 2009, the Home Office even contemplated replacing traditional glass pint glasses out of fears about their use in barroom brawls. However, a recent report from the Wall Street Journal reveals that there is growing sentiment in the UK to abandon one of the clearest representations of their antipathy towards arms and equip more police officers with guns.
Since the Metropolitan Police Service was founded in 1829, most officers have conducted their duties unarmed. In order to carry a firearm on duty, an officer must volunteer and be trained as an Authorised Firearms Officer (AFOs). According to the WSJ, today a mere five percent of officers in England and Wales carry firearms. A March 2017 report by NBC News indicated that even in London, less than 10 percent of officers carry a gun. Data from the Home Office shows that from 2009 to 2016, the number of AFOs in England and Wales dropped 18 percent, part of an overall reduction in the police force. Further, citing this data, the Independent pointed out that the number of AFOs as a percentage of the overall police force fell from 2010 to 2016.
The shift in mindset has taken place amidst a string of terrorist attacks and an increase in violent crimes perpetrated with guns and knives. In what will be seen by some as a blow to the efficacy of UK gun law, the WSJ reported that “London’s Metropolitan Police says the number of guns being smuggled into the U.K. is ‘worrying,’ and there are fears terrorists might use them to carry out marauding attacks.”
Showing just how much opinion has turned, the WSJ article quoted Open University Professor of History and Criminology Clive Emsley, who stated, “There is a much stronger movement for arming the ordinary bobby than I can ever remember.”
Moreover, the article shared the story of Constable Damon Blackman, who was on hand for one of London’s recent terror attacks,
A police medic trained to carry a Taser, he responded to the June 3 terrorist attack at London Bridge that left eight people dead. He said he believed more lives could have been saved if the first responders had been able to shoot the attackers before they rampaged through nearby Borough Market.
“If you’re dealing with someone with a knife, [Tasers don’t] give the same level of security as a firearm,” Mr. Blackman said.
Some high-profile officials have also called for a change. For the past several months, former leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party and Member of the European Parliament Nigel Farage has used his radio program to advocate for an armed police force. Following the London Bridge attack, Colonel Richard Kemp, who worked for the UK’s Joint Intelligence Committee, issued a statement where he advocated for a number of measures to combat terrorist violence. In it, he noted, “We also need to have every cop in this country armed, which gives us a greater chance of having an immediate response.”
The evidence of a change in sentiment is more than anecdotal. A 2006 poll of officers conducted by the Police Federation of England and Wales found that 82 percent “[did] not want all officers to be routinely armed on duty.” A Police Federation fact sheet accompanying the results noted that “there has been almost no change in police officers’ opinions since we conducted the previous surveys in 2003 and 1995, and this despite the massive rise in gun related crime.” A September 2017 version of the poll found, “34% of all Federated Rank officers responding to the survey are in favour of officers being routinely armed both on or off duty, or just on duty;” a 16 point shift in favor of arming officers.
The UK government has already taken some measures to arm more officers. Following the November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, France, the government allocated funding to train 1,500 new AFOs. However, recruiting new AFOs has proved difficult and the allotment has not been filled. Additionally, the National Police Chiefs’ Council is in the midst of a review of armed policing in the UK. A July 13 press release from the organization stated that the group “will carefully consider whether there is a need to further increase the number of highly specialist officers working in armed response vehicles, whether some currently unarmed officers in key locations should be armed and more Tasers for front line officers.”
It is encouraging that a growing number of British subjects are coming to the realization that firearms are an effective means of confronting criminal violence. While recent debate on this matter has almost exclusively concerned firearms for police, the UK would do well to rediscover that all law-abiding individuals have the right to access the tools of self-defense.