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The use of firearms in the commission of crimes remains relatively low in the United Kingdom (UK).  Given the low incidence of criminal activity involving these weapons, the police forces across the UK are generally not armed during the course of their work.  There are specialist firearms officers who may be authorized to carry weapons, and they must operate under the strict confines of the law.  These weapons are rarely fired, with only five discharged in 2011–12. 

I.  Introduction

The police in the United Kingdom (UK) are organized into local districts along geographic lines.  There are currently fifty-two police forces across the UK: forty-three in England and Wales, eight in Scotland, and one in Northern Ireland.[1]  These are known as constabularies, or forces, and operate independently of one another, but cooperate when necessary.  In addition to the constabularies, there is the Metropolitan Police Service, a large police force that operates in the greater London area, covering 620 square miles and 7.2 million people.  The National Crime Agency is another law enforcement group that targets criminals and groups that pose the biggest threat to the UK.  It conducts its own operations, but also provides support to its partners.[2]  The British Transport Police are responsible for policing railways, including the London Underground and other tram systems.[3] 

Funding for the police is provided by the central government, with the budget for each force being set annually by the government.[4]  Funding is distributed according to the police allocation formula, a calculation that aims to share money among forces based on a number of factors, including population density and need.[5]

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II.  Police Weapons and Equipment

The use of firearms in the commission of crimes remains relatively low in the UK.  The history of the police across the UK not carrying weapons dates back to the creation of the police in 1829 by the Home Secretary of the time, Sir Robert Peel.  His aim was to distinguish them from the military to help garner respect and build the foundation of policing by respect.[6]  He did so by dressing the new police force in blue rather than the military red, and not arming them with firearms.[7]

In the period 2010–11, 11,227 crimes were reported involving the use of firearms.  Given the low incidence of criminal activity involving firearms, the police forces across the UK are generally not armed with firearms during the course of their work.  Within each police force, there is a group of specially trained officers who are authorized to carry firearms.  The carrying of firearms must be authorized by a specially designated officer.[8]  In 2011–12 the number of authorized firearms officers was 6,756, approximately 5% of the total force.  Firearms were authorized for police use in 12,550 incidents in 2011–12.  In all these incidents, conventional firearms were discharged five times.[9]

A.  Weapons Used by Police

As noted above, police in the UK are generally unarmed; however, given the special circumstances in Northern Ireland, the Chief Constable has given authority to all officers that have successfully passed training to carry firearms, both on and off duty.[10]  Specialist firearms units are permitted to use weapons, and it is the responsibility of the Chief Officer of Police to select and acquire these weapons.  The weapons are selected in accordance with a threat and risk assessment process that is constantly under evaluation to ensure the police are adequately armed.[11]  Guidelines state that “[e]quipment selected should be appropriate for the purpose for which it is issued.”[12]  Weapons must be evaluated against an operational requirement, which includes:

  • The purpose for which the weapon is being acquired;
  • The environment in which it is likely to be deployed;
  • The ballistics of the ammunition.[13]

The weapons most carried by the police are 9mm, 5.56mm, and 7.62mm caliber weapons.  Forces may carry other caliber weapons for general and specialist use.[14]  The police also use the following weapons:  

  • Handguns, including self-loading pistols and revolvers;
  • Carbines and rifles;
  • Precision rifles fitted with telescopic sights;
  • Shotguns (pump-action or self-loading) with appropriate sighting system and bored true cylinder to enable specialist munitions to be used (for example, CS and breaching rounds);
  • 37mm Launchers, L104A1/2 with L18A1/2 optic sight (there are other launchers for use with signal flares and specialist munitions);
  • Conductive Energy Devices (Taser X26 and M26).[15]

Most forces also hold a selection of 12 gauge and 37mm munitions to address specialist situations.  These munitions include 37mm Attenuating Energy Projectiles, 12 gauge breaching rounds, and CS(m) barricade penetrating rounds.[16]

B.  Other Equipment

The police also possess a number of items of other equipment to enable them to address a variety of situations, including forcible entry equipment, such as

  • Kinetic devices;
  • Hydraulic equipment;
  • Cutting equipment;
  • Shotgun breaching rounds;
  • Explosive breaching devices.[17]

The police have a variety of vehicle stopping devices; specialist munitions, which include pyrotechnic devices; percussion (stun) grenades; chemical munitions (such as smoke and CS based munitions); and barricade breaching munitions.[18]  The metropolitan police is currently in the process of obtaining a license that will enable them to use water cannon.[19]

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III.  Rules on the Use of Police Weapons

There are extensive laws, regulations, and guidance that govern the use of police weapons, and the individual officer is both responsible and liable for any shots fired.  The law[20] states that police forces have discretion to use any equipment they see fit to prevent crime, or to enable an arrest, and the Standards of Professional Behaviour for police require that any use of force be only what is necessary, proportionate, and reasonable in each case.[21]

The Human Rights Act 1998 imposes a duty on the state to safeguard life, and prohibits the taking of life.  However, there is an exception if the deprivation of life is a result of force that is absolutely necessary.[22]  Whether the use of force is absolutely necessary depends upon the facts of each case, and the police “must only resort to the use of force or firearms if other means remain ineffective or there is no realistic prospect of achieving the lawful objective without exposing police officers, or anyone whom it is their duty to protect, to a real risk of harm or injury.”[23]

Authorized Firearms Officers may only be deployed when the officer authorizing deployment[24] has a reasonable belief that officers may have to protect themselves from a person who possesses or has access to a firearm or lethal weapon, or is so dangerous that the deployment of armed officers is an appropriate response.[25]  Armed officers may also be deployed as an “operational contingency in a specific operation (based on the threat assessment).”[26]  Firearms may be discharged only in circumstances after the officer has identified him- or herself as armed, given clear directions to the suspect, and allowed the suspect sufficient time to follow the directions, unless doing so would place any person at risk or be inappropriate or pointless.[27]

Any use of firearms must also take into account the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007, which provides that an organization is guilty of an offense if the manner in which its activities are managed or organized causes a person’s death, or amounts to a gross breach of duty of care owed to the deceased by the organization.[28]  Police officers are required to abide by all lawful orders unless there is good reason for doing otherwise.[29]  However, obedience to these orders is no defense if the armed officers know that the order to use force is unlawful and if they have an opportunity to refuse to obey the order.[30]

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IV.  Recent Incidents

While use of firearms by the police is minimal, any police shootings are highly publicized.  The coroner holds an inquest into each death, and the Independent Police Complaints Commission holds an investigation.[31]  The inquest is a fact-finding process that determines the identity of the deceased, the place and time of death, and how the death occurred.[32]  The most recent high-profile police shootings occurred in 2005 and 2011.  In the wake of numerous terrorist threats in 2005, the police shot and killed Brazilian Jean Charles De Menzes, whom they suspected was a terrorist planning a suicide bombing in London.  De Menzes was later found to be unconnected to, and innocent of, any terrorist activity.[33]  The jury in this case came to an open verdict (declining to find the killing lawful) at the inquest into his death.[34]   

On August 11, 2011, the police shot and killed Mark Duggan, who was unarmed.  This led to some of the worst rioting England had ever seen, with over one thousand people arrested and millions of dollars in property damage.[35]  An inquest that was held later found that Duggan was lawfully killed, a finding that sparked further violence.  There has been a mixed public reaction over the verdict, and Duggan’s family is currently involved in a judicial review process of parts of the decision.[36]

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Clare Feikert-Ahalt
Senior Foreign Law Specialist
September 2014


[1] Policing Profiles of Participating and Partner States, OSCE Polis, http://polis.osce.org/countries/details?item_ id=73 (last updated Dec. 6, 2006).  Scotland and Northern Ireland have their own regimes applying to the use of firearms by police.  For the purposes of this report, only England and Wales will be considered, unless otherwise specified.

[2] About Us, National Crime Agency, http://www.nationalcrimeagency.gov.uk/about-us (last visited Sept. 2, 2014).

[3] British Transport Police, http://www.btp.police.uk/ (last visited Sept. 2, 2014).

[5] Home Office, Guide to the Police Allocation Formula, GOV.UK (Mar. 26, 2013), https://www.gov.uk/guide-to-the-police-allocation-formula.

[6] London Assembly, Police and Crime Committee, Arming the Met: The Deployment of Less-Lethal Weapons in London 6 (Oct. 2013), http://www.london.gov.uk/sites/default/files/13-10-15-Arming-the-Met-the-deployment-of-less-lethal-weapons-in-London.pdf.

[7] Michael J. Waldren, Armed Police: The Police Use of Firearms Since 1945, at 2 (2007).

[8] Association of Chief Police Officers et al., Manual of Guidance on the Management, Command and Deployment of Armed Officers 57, ¶ 4.0 (3d ed. 2011), http://www.acpo.police.uk/documents/uniformed/ 2011/201111MCDofAO3.pdf.

[9] Home Office, Table 1 Number of Operations in Which Firearms Were Authorised, in Police Use of Firearms: Statistics (Mar. 27, 2014), https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/211845/ HO_-_Police_Firearms_stats_Commons_-_2013_7_11__3_.pdf.

[10] Association of Chief Police Officers et al., supra note 8, at 57, ¶ 4.5.

[11] Id. at 41, ¶ 3.8.

[12] Id. at 39, ¶ 3.0.

[13] Id. at 41, ¶ 3.11.

[14] Id. at 42, ¶ 3.13.

[15] Id. at 41, ¶ 3.12.

[16] Id. at 42, ¶ 3.19.

[17] Id. at 49, ¶ 3.72.

[18] Id. at 50, ¶¶ 3.75–3.80.

[19] Water cannon have been in use in Northern Ireland since the late 1990s.  Association of Chief Police Officers & the College of Policing, National Water Cannon Asset (Jan. 8, 2014), https://www.london.gov.uk/sites/ default/files/ACPO%20Water%20Cannon%20Briefing%20Document,%20Jan%202014.pdf; Metropolitan Police Given Permission to Buy Water Cannon, BBC News (June 11, 2014), http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-london-27781673.

[20] The laws include the Criminal Law Act 1967, c. 58, § 3(1), http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1967/58/ section/3 (providing that reasonable force may be used to prevent crime and for the purposes of arrest); Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, c. 60, § 117, http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1984/60/contents (providing constables with the power to use reasonable force during the course of their duties); Human Rights Act 1998, c. 42, http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1998/42/contents (implementing the European Convention on Human Rights into the national law of the United Kingdom, which provides for fundamental rights and freedoms); and Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008, c. 4, § 76, http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2008/4/contents (providing for self-defense and common law provisions that allow for self-defense that is reasonable and proportionate in the circumstances, and that place a duty on the police to take action to protect the human rights of those around them).  The common law provisions are detailed in Beckford v. The Queen [1988] AC 130; R v. Williams 78 Cr App Rep 276; and Palmer v. The Queen [1971] AC 814.

[21] Police (Conduct) Regulations 2008, SI 2008/2864, http://www.legislation.gov.uk/uksi/2008/2864/ contents/made.

[22] Association of Chief Police Officers et al., supra note 8, at 20, ¶ 1.30.

[23] Id. at 27, ¶ 2.3.

[24] Id. at 60, ¶ 4.24.

[25] Id., ¶ 4.20.

[26] Id.

[27] Id. at 33–34, ¶ 2.36.

[28] Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007, c. 19, http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2007/ 19/contents.

[29] Association of Chief Police Officers et al., supra note 8, at 23, ¶ 1.43.

[30] Id. at 24, ¶ 1.45.

[31] About Armed Police, Police Firearms Officers Association, http://www.pfoa.co.uk/201/why-we-have-armed-policev2 (last visited Sept. 8, 2014).

[32] Role of Coroner, Inquest into the Death of Mark Duggan, http://dugganinquest.independent.gov.uk/coroner-role.htm (last updated July 25, 2013).

[33] Police Chief “Sorry” over Death, BBC News (July 24, 2005), http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/4712061.stm

[34] Open Verdict at Menezes Inquest, BBC News (Dec. 12, 2008), http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/7764882.stm

[35] Department for Communities and Local Government, Government Response to the Riots, Communities and Victim Panel’s Final Report (July 2013), https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/ uploads/attachment_data/file/211617/Govt_Response_to_the_Riots_-_Final_Report.pdf.

[36] Latest News, Inquest into the Death of Mark Duggan, http://dugganinquest.independent.gov.uk/latest-news.htm (last updated July

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Last Updated: 06/09/2015