Kids with guns: Should the armed forces encourage young people to interact with weapons and military vehicles?

Background information & our research

Young children handling a sniper rifle and a pistol at Sunderland Airshow in 2017. Photo: Veterans for Peace.


Militarism has been a long-standing part of British politics and society. There has, however, been a ‘new tide of militarism’ in evidence in recent years.

A helpful way of understanding militarism is to see it as:

  • the normalisation of war and war-preparedness
  • the prioritisation of the needs and interests of military institutions
  • the extension of military culture and influence into everyday life (via education, central and local government, businesses, charities, popular culture and more).

We discuss this in more detail here. As discussed in our Warrior Nation report by Paul Dixon, the ‘militarisation offensive’ of recent years is due at least in part to backlash from unpopular wars and to the ‘recruitment crisis’ faced the military.

Examples of this militarisation process include the introduction of Armed Forces Day, Armed Forces Covenants, and increasing military influence in education and youth activities, such as cadet expansion.

These developments are active in local communities and have visible results. While the presence of the military at community events is not new, there is a sense that this is empowered and encouraged by the new formal relationships created by the Armed Forces Covenants between the armed forces and local authorities and many other organisations.

Every council in Great Britain, and a number in Northern Ireland, have signed an Armed Forces Community Covenant. This pledges the council and other partner organisations to work to not only remove disadvantage for the armed forces community in the area but also to promote public support for the armed forces.

While councils have responded to the Covenant in different ways, for some this creates an obligation to actively support military recruitment activities and events that celebrate the armed forces. The defence industry also have a presence at some Armed Forces Day events as sponsors and exhibitors.

While some councils do not allow weapons and military vehicles in public spaces or community events, our research indicates that the majority do. These objects – directly linked to warfare – have a strong impact on young people and are a unique selling point for military recruitment.

Although the recent changes in the relationship between civil society and the military has received little mainstream scrutiny, some local communities are taking action. We document here how these powerful tools of recruitment are used, why this is problematic, and local inititatives that groups have employed to challenge them.

Militarism: ‘The shaping of civilian space and social relations by military objectives, rationales and structures, either as part of the deliberate extension of military influence into civilian spheres of life and the prioritising of military institutions, or as a by-product of those processes.’ Rachel Woodward, 2005

What's included

Use the menu on the left to navigate to the following sections:

  • Documentation of places where young children and teenagers have been encouraged to handle and interact with weapons and military vehicles at various kinds of events at which the military engages with the public.
  • Recent developments (see background above) that play a factor in how the military is presented within local communities.
  • Key concerns put forward by local groups and ourselves about the military encouraging children and young people to interact with weapons and military vehicles – see here.
  • Case studies of local initiatives showing how some local groups around the country have recently responded to seeing children and young people encouraged to interact with weapons and military vehicles. More to be added soon.
  • Responses of local authorities on this issue and outline their policies and approaches or lack of policy – see below.
  • Reference list of strategies and resources to help you start the debate locally – see here.

project research

The examples presented in this report have been documented first-hand over the past few years either by us or by groups who are in touch with us. They represent only a small sample of military events in public spaces where weapons and military vehicles are displayed. Activities in schools and colleges are also more common but more difficult to document, so we have relied upon media and other reporting to outline the kind of activities that take place.

We have gathered information from local councils across the UK on their policies and practice in this area via freedom of information requests – see below.

We also present extracts from correspondence, media articles and other methods that local groups and organisations have used to pursue a dialogue on this issue with local authorities and armed forces personnel.

Unfortunately, our request to the Ministry of Defence for information regarding their policies relating to the handling of weapons by children and young people at public events was met with a response which suggested a desire to delay and discourage on their part. We continue to pursue this information in what we hope will be a continuing conversation about the ethics of promoting weapons and armed violence to children and young people.

Council information

ForcesWatch undertook research through Freedom of Information requests to find out about the different policy approaches that local authorities take towards armed forces recruitment and promotional activities in public spaces and at public events. We asked:

  1. Does the council allow promotional and recruitment activities by the armed forces in public spaces/events?
  2. If yes to 1., does the council allow weapons and military vehicles to be part of these activities?
  3. If yes to 1., what is the procedure for the armed forces to undertake these activities?
  4. What is the council’s policy on children (under 18 years old) handling military weapons in public spaces/events?
  5. What policies inform the council’s position on this, in relation to event licensing, safeguarding, the Armed Forces Covenant etc.

We have had responses from over half of all councils in the UK. We thank the councils that have responded for doing so and for the information that they provided.  While there are limitations to this approach with regard to the level of insight into how policy and practice develops on the ground, it has provided a helpful overview of the situation, differing approaches the councils employ and why they do so.

The most common position is that the council does allow recruitment and promotional events and also allows weapons and military vehicles to be part of these activities. It is also most common for the council to say they have no policy in relation to children handling military weapons in public spaces or events, or that there are no policies other than standard risk assessments and safeguarding procedures, that would apply to all activites.

A number of councils said that as the Ministry of Defence is a government body with its own policies, the council does not need to have a policy on their activities, and that it is up to armed forces personnel to manage and determine who handles the weapons. Some referred to a civil military partnership or Armed Forces Champion within the council that would govern such activities.

A number of councils said that supporting armed forces events is a priority for them, as they are signatories to the Armed Forces Covenant, or that through the Covenant, they are committed to supporting military recruitment and promotional activities.

A few councils said that their policy is that no-one under 16 can handle weapons without parental consent or that parental/guardian permission along with military supervision is essential. Only one council in Northern Ireland stated that they do not allow military promotional activities, while the issue of allowing military promotional events has not arisen for a number of other councils. Another said that they would not allow children to handle weaponry as it would not be appropriate. A small number of councils indicated that weapons would not be displayed but that vehicles may.

A fuller analysis of the responses will be available here soon.

Next section

Why this should be challenged