Written evidence submitted by the Scottish Association for Country Sports, Scottish Land and Estates, Scottish Target Shooting, The Gun Trade Association, The Scottish Countryside Alliance, and The Scottish Gamekeepers Association (FLR0009)

 

The following is a submission on behalf of the Scottish Association for Country Sports, Scottish Target Shooting, Scottish Land & Estates, the Scottish Gamekeepers Association, the Gun Trade Association and the Scottish Countryside Alliance.  All are membership organisations who sit on the Scottish Firearms and Explosives Licensing Practitioners Group.

 

How adequate are firearms licensing regulations in the UK, and in Scotland in particular?

 

The Firearms Act 1968 (as amended) and the associated rules and statutory instruments legislate for the provisions of firearms in the United Kingdom.  Firearms legislation, although not Air Weapons licensing, is a reserved matter.

 

A firearm is defined within Section 57 of the 1968 Act.  There are a number of other legislative vehicles which control the use of firearms and in addition, the Home Office publish a Guide on Firearms Licensing Law (December 2021), in addition to Statutory Guidance for Chief Officers of Police (November 2021).

 

The 1968 Act provides for the possession of firearms, including shotguns by an individual, however it also deals with the requirements of registration as a firearms dealer, the powers of the police and the definition of offences amongst other matters.

 

The licensing of air weapons is devolved and is legislated for within the Air Weapons and Licensing (Scotland) Act 2015.

 

Given that the 1968 Act has been significantly amended since its introduction, and it is recognised that it could be refreshed to reflect modern advances in thinking and technology, it is also fair to say that those involved in the management of the Acts consequences and requirements, namely the police, solicitors and membership shooting organisations are well versed in respect of its workings, both operationally and judicially. Significant practice and case law has been built up to underpin the practical effectiveness of the Act and the guidance.

 

In the Home Office report of 7 July 2022, it is noted that on 31 March 2022 there were 539212 people with certificates to possess guns in England and Wales.  As of 27 September 2022, in Scotland there were 60743 people who had a certificate to possess a firearm, a shotgun, an air weapon or a combination of all three.  Collectively, approx. 600k people in the UK have certificates which allow them access to firearms of one type or another.

 

Within the United Kingdom there is a qualified right to possess firearms, including shotguns.  The relevant sections of the Act, Sections 27 and Section 28, both state in their initial wording A firearm certificate shall be granted and a shot gun certificate shall be granted respectively.  The Act then sets out tests which the chief officer must be satisfied with prior to issuing a certificate.  Whilst the tests are set out in the legislation, how each chief officer of police elects to satisfy themselves that an applicant reaches that satisfaction level is an operational matter for each chief constable.  Notwithstanding the operational independence of each Chief Officer of Police, the Home Office does issue statutory guidance in respect of suitability enquiries.

 

It is recognised by the shooting membership organisations that there is significant variation of process between forces in England and Wales.   This is detrimental to all.


It is the view of this submission that a common document set should be issued by the Home Office to assist police forces in achieving consistency in the levels of necessary professional curiosity when conducting firearms licensing enquiries.  The effects of this will be threefold. 

 

  1. It will set out the standards expected in respect of enquiry.

 

  1. It will allow consistency of practice throughout GB.

 

  1. It will allow for robust review should this be required by HMIC or alternatively at a significant case review.

 

It is noted in the Home Office report of July 2022, the very low levels of refusal and revocations in relation to those who apply for certification or who hold certificates.  This, we believe, reflects two points.

 

      Firstly, those who apply for certificates likely know beforehand that they need to be, for want of a better description, of good character.

 

      Secondly, those who hold certificates are responsible people, who understand the privileged position they have and understand that should act with integrity.  Should they conduct themselves in a manner which would indicate that they are a risk to the safety of the public, then their guns will be removed.  It is important to understand that certificate holders are members of the public too, and for their own safety, if required, guns will be removed whilst enquiries are undertaken to establish the risk posed.

 

It is to be reinforced that certificate holders are overwhelmingly responsible people who understand the privilege and responsibility they hold.

 

We believe the legislation in respect of licensing of firearms in the UK is adequate in respect of the provision of a system which provides for the safety of the public.  That said it is recognised that the service provision of a large number of the English and Welsh forces is failing in respect of the service given to certificate holders.

 

To what extent are firearms licensing regulations adequate and relevant to Scotland’s particular circumstances, including its agricultural communities and its strong connections with countryside sports?

 

In respect of Scotland, the Police Service of Scotland came into being on 1 April 2013.  Prior to that, eight legacy forces existed, each with their own interpretation of the legislative requirements and attitude to risk, and they provided firearms licensing provisions on behalf of their own Chief Officer of Police.

 

The disparity was recognised immediately and work was begun to provide a common ICT system (SHOGUN), a common document set and training.  The model of delivery of the service was changed to a mix of police officer and firearms enquiry officers.  The management of the system of firearms licensing was centralised in respect of senior managers and three processing centres were implemented to supply services in the North, East and West of the country.


In essence, the local territorial divisions carry out the necessary, professionally curious enquiries with the applicant.  This enquiry is recorded and submitted via the divisional administration hubs and then forwarded to the processing centre for review and the production of the relevant certificates.  Due to the linked-up systems, a resident in the south of Scotland can have their certification reviewed and produced by the processing centre in Inverness.  This provides an agile and responsive system which benefits not only the police in respect of economy, effectiveness and efficiency but also provides a welcome high level service provision for certificate holders.  99.35% of certificates in Scotland are issued prior to their expiry.

 

This process is applied to Air Weapons licensing also.  It became a necessity to have an air weapons certificate in Scotland on 31 December 2016.  As of 27 September 2022, 32146 Air Weapon Certificates are held in Scotland.  13215 people have an Air Weapon Certificate only.

 

The most recent statistical bulletin issued by the Scottish Government, Recorded Crimes and Offences Involving Firearms, Scotland, 2018-19 and 2019-20 revealed that 2018/19 and 2019/20 were the two lowest years of crimes involving firearms since records began.  Over the last five years, the number of offences involving an air weapon fell by almost two-thirds (from 190 to 71 offences).

 

Prior to the legislation being enacted a hand in process was undertaken.  Approx 20k air guns were surrendered to Police Scotland prior to the licensing legislation becoming effective.

 

Contentious enquiries, or suitability reviews, which have identified challenges or concerns in respect of applications are dealt with by experienced senior managers either centrally or attached to the processing centres.  They deal with revocations or refusals.

 

These police managers, who have worked operationally in the areas for which they are responsible understand the types of communities from which the applications are being received and the good reasons needed for successful application. 

 

They have effectively been on the ‘ground’ previously and in their roles, they understand why someone will need a gun and why.  In unusual circumstances, they do reach out for advice from partners such as shooting organisations or specialists in particular fields.

 

Over and above the foregoing, in 2016, the Scottish Firearms and Explosives Licensing Practitioners group was set up.  The members are Police Scotland, the Scottish Government, the Home Office, the industrial users of firearms in Scotland such as Nature Scot and Forestry and Land Scotland, landowner’s representatives and the shooting organisations representing firearms users from all disciplines.

 

This group has no lobbying function; it was set up to identify good practice and challenges.  If challenges are Scottish only, they can be resolved and if a matter impacting nationally is identified then that can be escalated to the national Firearms and Explosives Licensing Working Group (FELWG).  Guests from other licensing areas join the group as necessary, such as the PSNI, to see the actions of the group and take the good practice to their areas.

 

The group, which is chaired by the Scottish Director of the British Association of Shooting and Conservation, allows all to see the effectiveness of the licensing system and to collectively take forward good practice.


One such example was the recent publication and distribution of over 30k copies of the Firearms and Mental Health Awareness and Support leaflet.  This will be distributed to all certificate holders over the next five years by Police Scotland who will include it in all correspondence, including grants, renewals and variations.  The shooting organisations, where possible will include it in membership renewals.  It has been circulated by Scottish Government, Health and over 1100 copies have been sent to local surgeries.

 

It is the view of this submission that the legislation relevant to firearms in Scotland, be that the 1968 Firearms Act or the Air Weapons and Licensing (Scotland) act 2015, is robustly proportionate to what it seeks to achieve.  The licensing authority is alive and knowledgeable in respect of why people need and use firearms.

 

It is fit for its purpose.

 

Should the process for obtaining a licence for firearms be changed (for example, to place greater emphasis on applicants’ mental health)?

 

Between 2013 and 2016, work was undertaken by the Home Office in respect of a process of engaging with General Practitioners and having them provide information which would assist in decision making in respect of the issue or otherwise of certificates to provide firearms.  This was influenced by the learning of a number of significant case reviews where homicides were committed by certificate holders in possession of lawfully held firearms.

 

To be clear though, the decision to issue such certificates lies with the Chief Constable.  GPs are only one source of information.  Plans were put in place to have a marker attached to each certificate holder’s medical record.

 

In the lead up to a 1 April 2016 launch, significant work was undertaken by SG Health and Police Scotland,  including liaison with the Scottish BMA GP subcommittee.  Guidance was provided by the Chief Medical Officer of Scotland, by means of memorandum.

 

On 1 April 2016 the process went live, and after initial difficulties which were resolved, it became practice that in the absence of a GP form with an application to possess guns in Scotland, the certificate would not be progressed.  It is very fair to say that managers from Police Scotland worked hard to make this a success, when necessary, engaging with GP surgeries to allay any concerns they may have in taking part in the process.  Consequently, and after a relatively short time of a year or so, the process worked well with only 12 or so GP surgeries in Scotland, from a total over 1000 not engaging with the process.  Whilst concerns were raised re GP surgeries charging exorbitant amounts to supply the form, the advent of commercial companies providing a service has stopped these concerns.  A survey reflected the average cost was £40 to have the form processed by a GP.

 

Calls to the Scottish shooting organisations where members were facing difficulties with the process dropped dramatically as the process settled in.

 

To be clear, the process was initially intended to be a one-off exercise; once the marker was in place it did not require to be removed until the person was no longer a certificate holder.

 

In England and Wales, it is fair to say that over the same period the GP process did not progress well.  It was apparent that the police services there did not buy into the scheme and lacked the necessary strategic grip, drive and mechanisms to implement it.


 

During the consultation process for the Statutory Guidance for Chief Officers of Police, it became apparent that the NPCC lead wished for the process to be completed each time a certificate was applied for or renewed.  Given the nature of this guidance and its statutory basis, the Home Office reneged on its previous commitments to have a one-off process and accepted the wishes of the NPCC lead.  The GP process is now being rolled out in England and Wales.

 

In effect, should a certificate holder present at their GP with a condition which, in the GP’s view presents a concern in respect of the person ability to access firearms, the GP should contact the police.  The police will thereafter carry out enquiry in respect of the person’s suitability and thereafter a decision will be made in respect of their continued access to firearms.  It may be the case that the guns are removed from the certificate holder immediately should the concerns be grave.

 

Over and above the foregoing, modern command and control systems allow the police to know when the police have called at a certificate holders address and why.  In effect there is 24-hour passive surveillance over certificate holders.  Similarly, if a certificate holder has a negative interaction with the police, for example being reported for speeding, firearms licensing will be aware of that at short notice.

 

It is our view that the process for obtaining a certificate should not be changed.  The legislation is clear in respect of the tests and thresholds.  The legislation is supported by statutory guidance.  The GP process in Scotland is working well and is into its second run.  It is being rolled out in England and Wales.

 

There should be robust enough procedures in place to stop those who are unsuited to possess firearms having them.  We understand that processes and people can fail, however given the extremely small number of critical, significant incidents in the UK, the system does work well.

 

Good working practice and engagement with partners in groups such as the Scottish Firearms Licensing and Explosives Practitioners group can lead to very positive outcomes, an example being the recent work behind the publication of the Firearms and Mental Health Awareness and Support leaflet.

 

To be clear, tragedies involving legitimate firearms use are rare.  They affect everyone, firstly and foremost, the victim and their loved ones.  Tragedies also impact upon the police staff who were involved in the application process.  Tragedies impact upon the public’s perception of those who use firearms, being it for their employment or otherwise.  Public safety is paramount and should remain so.  It is our submission that the legislation is fit for public safety purposes.  It is backed up by ever increasing information sharing and passive electronic surveillance.

 

That said, nationally, Lord Cullen’s report of 1996 should not be forgotten, especially paragraph 8.7 in which he reflected on the HMIC report of 1993 in respect of the Administration of Firearms Licensing.  Lord Cullen stated ‘It was said that it was essential that shooters receive a quality service and value for money.  It is no doubt appropriate that efficiency should be the aim but it should not obtain the upper hand over the primary purpose of the system which is the protection and safety of the public.


There is nothing wrong with the law.  In Scotland, the service provided to certificate holders is very good.  We are aware of members asking for help when the police have been robust.  Sometimes they may be considered as too robust but more often than not there are sound operational reasons for the police taking action.  Pragmatically, this is recognised by the shooting organisations and solicitors involved in the process.

 

The same cannot be reflected in the English and Welsh forces positions and it is the strong belief of the shooting originations who have members in England and Wales that a drive should be undertaken to look at what positive practices can be learned from Scotland.  There is a fear that economy is obtaining the upper hand over the primary purpose of the system which is the protection and safety of the public, and the failure to provide an adequate service to certificate holders may be evidence of an underlying malaise.

 

Submitted for consideration.

 

October 2022

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