FP Explainer

When Are British Cops Allowed to Carry Guns?

Very rarely.

This week's riots in Britain, which have spread from the north London neighborhood of Tottenham to the cities of Birmingham, Liverpool, and Manchester, were sparked by the Aug. 4 shooting by police of a 29-year old London man. The victim, Mark Duggan, was carrying a weapon, though tests show he did not fire it. But Britain has long been well known for having an unarmed police force. Is that still the case?

Yes, but there are an increasing number of exceptions. The unarmed bobby on the beat is an image as quintessentially British as Big Ben or the Beatles and -- with the exception of Northern Ireland, where police have been routinely armed for years -- the vast majority of officers, including Scotland Yard, still make do with nonlethal weapons like batons, pepper spray, and gruff admonishments.

This hasn't always been the case. London police were issued revolvers in 1884 following the murder of two officers, though it wasn't mandatory: They could choose whether or not to carry them. The weapons were formally retired in 1936. During World War II, police were issued firearms in case of German invasion, but these were never to be used on patrol.

The police department has gone back and forth on the issue over the decades. Following a number of shootings of police during the 1950s and 1960s, about 17 percent of London police officers became authorized to carry firearms, but many licenses were revoked during the 1980s following a series of shootings by police. An increasing number of specially trained officers are now also armed with Tasers, though their use has been criticized by human rights groups.

As of 2009, there were 6,868 officers authorized to carry weapons in England and Wales. Within London's Metropolitan Police, out of a force of 33,000, around 2,700 officers were authorized to carry guns, though, unlike American cops, the vast majority of those aren't armed on a regular basis. Over 80 percent of British police officers say that despite increasing levels of violent crime, they don't want to see all officers armed. The issue often re-emerges as a topic of public debate, especially after the killing of a police officer, such as the 2005 killing of 38-year old West Yorkshire constable Sharon Beshenivsky during an armed robbery. Thankfully, this is pretty rare. Between 1900 and 2006, only 67 British police officers were killed by firearms, excluding Northern Ireland.

The London police's specialized firearms unit, today known as CO19, dates back to 1966. The purpose of the unit is to provide firearms training to the rest of the force and tactical support when necessary. In 1991, the unit introduced armed response vehicles, specially modified police cars that are able to rapidly respond to gun crimes or provide backup on dangerous assignments such as drug raids.

While armed operations have become more common, they are still pretty rare. According to official statistics, firearms were authorized for 19,951 operations in England and Wales between April 1, 2008, and March 31, 2009, but weapons were fired in four instances.

The unit came under heavy criticism in 2005 following the shooting death of Jean Charles de Menezes, an unarmed Brazilian man who was mistaken for a suicide bomber in the wake of the London Underground terrorist attacks. The Metropolitan Police was fined, but no charges were ever filed against any of the officers.

In 2009, the CO19 began the unprecedented practice of conducting armed patrols in the Brixton, Haringey, and Tottenham neighborhoods, in response to an increase in violent crime in those areas. The officers were charged with carrying out weapons sweeps to deter gang members from carrying firearms. Previously, the unit had only been called in to respond to reported crimes. The program was controversial ever since it was announced -- including within the police department. And, with Duggan have been shot during one of these patrols, the act that triggered the ongoing riots, it's likely to become even more so.

Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

FP Explainer

What Makes Credit Rating Agencies Issue a Downgrade?

It all depends on if the country is able to pay its debts, and whether it's willing to.

It's been a big week for credit rating agencies in global politics. On Wednesday, July 13, rating service Moody's (you might remember them from the subprime mortgage crisis) announced that U.S. bonds are ripe for a possible downgrade from AAA status as the political deadlock in Washington continues over raising the debt ceiling -- which regulates how much the U.S. government can borrow. On Tuesday, the agency downgraded Irish bonds to "junk" status. The country now joins Portugal, which was downgraded last week, and Greece as the European countries whose bonds are no longer considered investment grade. So what exactly determines these scores?

The ratings are a measure of how risky an investment a country's bonds are; they range from AAA (highest) to C (lowest). A country with a credit rating of BBB or higher is considered "investment grade;" below that is "junk."

To determine the rating, the agencies look at two main factors: One is economic (the country's ability to pay off its debts), and one is political (whether the government is willing to). The economic criteria include the country's revenue, fiscal and monetary policies, budgetary flexibility, level of inflation, public debt burden, and economic track record. On these criteria, the United States certainly merits its AAA rating; it's more or less taken as a given in global finance that U.S. government bonds are among the safest investments. On the other side of the spectrum there's Greece, where public debt is expected to reach 161 percent of GDP next year, its membership in the eurozone precludes simply printing more money to pay off loans, and a default is now considered a realistic possibility.

In the U.S. case, the threat of downgrade is due to political, not economic, reasons. Washington could easily continue borrowing money in order to pay off bondholders. But unless Congress and the White House can reach a deal to raise the $14.3 trillion debt ceiling by Aug. 2, the United States will be legally unable to do so. The latest announcement from Moody's essentially amounts to a warning to Capitol Hill and the White House that the global financial community isn't amused by the partisan bickering. 

A downgrade from AAA to AA is not, in itself, a catastrophe. Japan's credit rating has been steadily downgraded for years -- not exactly a vote of confidence, but even at AA-, the risk of a Japanese government default is pretty minor.

A downgrade from investment-grade to junk status is much more serious. Most major fiduciary firms, such as pension planners and insurers, are forbidden from investing in junk bonds. That means that countries like Ireland, Portugal, and Greece now have a much smaller group of investors who can buy their bonds. Those that can and do, of course, will demand a much higher rate of interest to account for the increased risk of their investment.

An actual default -- even a brief "technical" one -- of the U.S. economy could be cataclysmic, as it would lower the country's credit rating, resulting in higher interest rates and raising the Treasury's borrowing costs by billions. Think of it as the consequence of not paying your mortgage or credit card bills. An extended failure to repay bondholders could lower the rating to a point at which mutual funds will be required to divest, forcing a sell-off of trillions of dollars in bonds.

It wouldn't be pretty.

Thanks to Peter Marber, chief business strategist for emerging markets at HSBC Global Asset Management.