The Metropolitan Police chief said the refusal of over 100 specialist officers to carry guns is an escalating crisis.

Today up to a quarter of the 400-strong firearms unit SO19 laid down their weapons in protest against the suspension of two colleagues over the death of a man carrying a table leg they mistook for a shotgun.

Commissioner John Stevens rushed off from a press conference this morning to sort out what he called "a very serious problem" that "seems to be growing". He has taken personal control of negotiations.

Yesterday at least 20 officers handed in their cards permitting them to carry firearms. Another 100 withdrew from firearms duty following the suspension of Inspector Neil Sharman and PC Kevin Fagan on Friday.

The pair could face criminal charges after a second inquest five years after the death of Harry Stanley, 46, returned a verdict of unlawful killing.

Killed for carrying a table leg

Father-of-three Harry Stanley paid with his life when someone mistook the coffee table leg in his hand for a gun.

In September 1999 the 46-year-old painter and decorator visited a pub in Hackney, east London, for a lemonade on his way home after fetching the table leg repaired by his brother.

While there, a member of the public confused his Scottish accent with an Irish one, and fatally, the piece of wood is his bag with a sawn-off shotgun. Armed police responded to the person's call and killed Mr Stanley outside the pub in disputed circumstances.

In April the Stanley family won a High Court ruling to have an open verdict from his first inquest overturned. On Friday a second inquest found the killing was unlawful.

The Metropolitan Police Federation (MPF), which represents officers, said the decision provoked "anger and disquiet" among their members.

MPF chairman Glen Smyth said: "Firearms officers have one of the most demanding and difficult jobs in policing. It is dangerous, requires a high degree of skill and can place them in situations where they have to take split-second decisions over life and death."

The suspension comes five years after the event and "with complete disregard of any legal review that may follow last week's inquest", he added. It leaves firearms officers asking whether they, too, will be "abandoned" by the Met in a similar situation, even if they acted in line with their training.

The pressure group Inquest, whose solicitors represent the Stanley family, said they were "surprised" to hear about the protest.

Family solicitor Daniel Machover said SO19 "should not try to apply pressure" to give immunity to their two colleagues.

SO19 members man armed response vehicles and conduct armed raids and sieges.

Sir John, who carried a gun for 11 years, offered the officers his "every sympathy", but said they "must come back to work".

He added: "I believe the law as it stands at the moment is far from ideal but we cannot ignore the jury's verdict. That is the law of the land."

The Metropolitan Police Authority (MPA), the public body overseeing the Met, said Sir John had "little option" but to suspend the officers. "Everyone should await the outcome (of the ongoing judicial process) before taking hasty action."

The level of armed cover on the streets of London has "not been unaffected", the MPA claimed.