At one time the British police were not armed, period. In Northern Ireland this has not been practicable for decades due to the warring white tribes and in particular the terrorist and assassination campaigns of the Provisional IRA, hopefully now a thing of the past. Now, many police in Central London carry guns as a matter of routine. In the capital, there are such things as diplomatic protection, and having seen more than its fair share of terrorist attacks over the years - including 7/7
- officers can be seen carrying not only guns but on occasion automatic firearms at not only airports but major railway termini.
These exceptions aside, in practice any police officer anywhere in the country will have armed back up within minutes, certainly in urban areas.
The consensus - and there is one - of both police and public is that the British police should not be armed routinely, although perhaps surprisingly the public are only marginally in favour
of not arming them while the police are overwhelmingly so.
Terrorism aside, there are times when it is or may be impossible not to send officers onto the street unarmed. During the riots last August, there was one incident in which a rioter fired at a police helicopter. This will almost certainly mean that the next time there is serious civil disorder on our streets, there will be armed police present, perhaps in some areas the majority. Clearly it is not reasonable to send the police or anyone into a situation like this without arming them or at the very least having serious armed back up.
Speaking on the BBC this morning, Sir Hugh Orde - the former Chief Constable of Northern Ireland - spoke strongly against arming the police
. Orde is the man who many feel should have become Police Commissioner, certainly he would have been a better choice than Bernard Hogan-Howe
In spite of the horror in Manchester, murders of police officers in the UK (outside of Northern Ireland) are extremely rare, shootings even more so. The most tragic recent case was that of David Rathband
, who survived but committed suicide early this year. Rathband was targeted by a man who was angry at the police and angry at the world. He appears to be the only other instance of a police officer being targeted for the sake of it. Even the Braybrook Street Massacre
of 1966 which resulted in the deaths of 3 officers was not planned. The real controversy over that case was the planned release of Harry Roberts, who was allowed out of prison at the turn of the century, in spite of the widely held view that he should have been kept behind bars until the next one.
Roberts is now back in prison where he will surely remain until he dies, thanks entirely to his own behaviour
Another issue was raised by the Braybrook Street Massacre besides the routine arming of the police, the reintroduction of capital punishment, at least for certain types of murder. Rightly or wrongly, this will not even be entertained seriously by Parliament, even though it is sure to be raised in the days and weeks ahead.
It is to be hoped that the British police will continue to police the streets unarmed, and likewise that gun crime will continue to be the exception rather than the rule. Bad as are the British police at times, in some countries where they are armed routinely, they are not only worse but trigger happy. There are sadly many reports and even actual videos on YouTube of police shooting unarmed men, especially in the United States. Neither the British police nor the public want to see that Wild West mentality here.