Although the number of armed officers decreased in the late 1980s and early 1990s due to a policy of 'fewer, better trained' marksmen, it increased substantially in 1991, the last year for which figures are available. But at 7,717, they are only a small proportion of the 127,000- strong force in England and Wales.
Most firearms are issued to specialist teams and armed response vehicles, now used by almost all forces. Last week, a Metropolitan Police specialist firearms officer shot dead an armed robber who had fired dozens of shots at police after being chased from the scene of a north London bank robbery.
Despite the widespread publicity and public sympathy for each murdered police officer, there are no signs the rate is increasing. Five officers have died in London since the murder of PC Keith Blakelock in 1985 and another nine elsewhere in England and Wales. Most were unarmed.
IRA activities have led to the murder of one police officer - Special Constable Glenn Goodman in North Yorkshire - and the attempted murder of another, PC Ray Hall, who narrowly escaped death in north London in November last year when shots were fired at his head and in his back. The IRA campaign and other terrorist threats have led to an increase in the arming and number of personal protection officers and permanently armed airport patrols.
Many senior officers, the Police Federation and criminologists now accept an almost fully armed force is only a matter of time as a result of the rise in armed crime, particularly that connected with drugs.
Nationally, offences involving firearms increased by 50 per cent between 1988 and 1991; armed robberies almost doubled. There have been four crack-related murders this year compared to one last year in south-east London.
Detectives are concerned about the widespread availability of firearms to low echelons of the underworld - guns are available 'on loan' for a few hundred pounds in parts of London. They also are concerned about the possible influx of surplus firearms from the former Eastern Bloc. A number of police initiatives are underway to study and tackle the links between the trade in illicit firearms and drugs, and the rise in armed crime.
Paul Condon, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, said yesterday that although the police did not seek to be armed, more armed criminals will lead to the position where 'more police officers must be armed'. He added: 'Officers deserve to be protected.'
The murder would increase calls for permanent arming, said Mike Bennett, chairman of the Metropolitan Police Federation: 'The only protection against the gun is the gun.' But he stressed that it was not something he favoured, and he wanted the Government to ensure that when convicted murderers were sentenced, 'life meant life'.
Ian Johnston, Deputy Assistant Commissioner in charge of south London, said facing armed criminals was part of the job. 'We would want to hold out against being armed as long as possible. There may come a time when the price we are paying is too high, but not yet.'