Monopoly on the use of lethal force is one of the first and most important privileges of the State – and few countries enforce that monopoly more thoroughly than the United Kingdom. With the exception of Northern Ireland, Britain imposes on its citizens some of the most stringent firearms restrictions in the world, and our police are, for the most part, unarmed.
This creates a difficult balancing act when it comes to regulating those who bear arms in the nation’s defence.
On the one hand, there clearly needs to be close supervision of anyone authorised to bear arms in the State’s defence, for there can be few abuses more power more terrifying or less remediable than someone being killed without just cause.
Yet such supervision must take into account in many cases, soldiers or armed police officers will be making life-or-death decisions under extraordinary pressure, up to and including real or perceived threat to their own life or those of their colleagues. In a society where few people have any experience of armed service, or even of private firearms, few civilians assessing events after the fact are going to have any real idea what that involves.
Thus, the conundrum. Armed officers and soldiers obviously cannot have carte blanche to shoot as they please; but there must be some allowance for conditions they operate in and the impossibility of always getting every split-second judgement right. In other words, there must be some scope for them to make mistakes, even though the consequences of their mistakes can mean that someone dies who ought not have.
Perhaps people recoil from it, when it’s put as baldly us that. But it’s the truth nonetheless. If the State arms someone, it must to some extent delegate to their judgement the decision to shoot, and shoulder a share of the responsibility for their decisions.
If it doesn’t, it will sooner or later find few people prepared to shoot for it. Perhaps there will be resignations, as the Metropolitan Police is discovering, or an increasing struggle to recruit. More insidiously, the threat of personal prosecution will overshadow the decisions of those still employed and on the field. Perhaps that will make one rightly hesitate where they might have fired; perhaps too it will make one fail to shoot when they ought to.
Some countries create this room for error by offering their police or gendarmerie qualified immunity, making it harder to sue officers for actions performed in the line of duty. Again, the United Kingdom doesn’t do this; “the police are the public and the public are the police”, etc.
Fair enough. But absent that general shield, it is all the more important that the rules governing the use of force by police and soldiers are clear and fair, and enforced impartially.
(As such the granting of anonymity to officers charged with offences, which the Daily Telegraph brands “a worrying feature of the judicial process”, does not seem unreasonable in such cases.)
It is also important that the debate on how to regulate British policing is not, as too often happens across many policy areas, contaminated by memes from the United States; for example, the absurdity of protesters in Westminster shouting “Hands up, don’t shoot!” at the (unarmed) officers policing them in 2016.
Whatever the situation in that country, our police are not on a shooting spree: official statistics from the year ending in 2023, there were in England and Wales 18,395 incidents in which armed officers were deployed; of these just ten – that’s 0.05 per cent – ended in the discharge of a weapon. (The contrast is all the more remarkable when you account for the fact that each incident represents a case in which an armed response was deemed appropriate and specifically called for.)
As such, it doesn’t seem unreasonable – and does not require passing judgement on any individual case – for the Prime Minister and Home Secretary to take seriously the concerns which have have led so many to turn in their firearms licences.
Perhaps ironically it was two Americans, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, who summed up the quandary in front of ministers best in the Federalist Papers:
“If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”
In the absence of angels, there will never be a perfect balance struck between state capacity and public protection, nor a set of procedures which will safeguard against every possibility of tragedy (of commission or omission). We can only try to draw the line such as to ensure that malicious wrongdoing is properly punished, but those entrusted with our armed defence are given some leeway to do their job in circumstances most of us will never face.