Written evidence submitted by Police Scotland (FLR0011)

 

 

https://spi.spnet.local/policescotland/PublishingImages/logos/PS_logo_2017_portrait_strap_288%20RGBIntranet.jpgScottish Affairs Committee: Firearms Licensing Regulations

 

 

Written Submission - The Police Service of Scotland

 

 

 


 

 

Introduction

The Police Service of Scotland recognises the critical importance of a firearms licensing, with a clear focus on public safety, whilst still delivering an efficient and effective service to meet the needs of firearms certificate applicants and holders.

Prior to reform in 2013, policing in Scotland consisted of eight legacy Forces, as well as the national Scottish Crime and Drug Enforcement Agency. Each Force had its own arrangements and procedures in respect of firearms licensing which created the potential for an inconsistent approach. Since the establishment of Police Scotland in 2013, considerable work has been undertaken to develop, enhance and standardise the approach to firearms licensing in Scotland.

The Chief Constable has overall responsibility for the issue of firearms licences in Scotland, including the licensing of air weapons. The National Firearms and Explosives Licensing Unit (NFEL), which is led by a Superintendent with delegated authority from the Chief Constable, was established to oversee all firearms licencing matters including policy, administration and engagement with Scottish Government, and UK Home Office. All decisions pertaining to the grant, renewal, revocation or refusal of licences are overseen by NFEL. This national coordination and oversight provides consistency in decision-making against statutory and non- statutory guidance, policies and procedures, and enables a consistent approach in terms of the consideration and assessment of risk.

As part of a collaborative approach to system improvements and a shared understanding of firearms licensing and associated matters, Police Scotland is a member of the Firearms and Explosives Licensing Practitioners Group – Scotland. The group consists of a wide range of organisations (see Appendix 2) and feeds into the Firearms and Explosives Licensing Working Group, which in turn reports to the UK National Police Chiefs’ Council.

Since 2016, the law in Scotland requires any person who possesses, purchases, uses, or acquires an air weapon to have a certificate, placing additional demands on the Scottish licensing system. Since 2018, Police Scotland has handled over 24,000 grant applications and 54,000 renewal applications for firearms, shotguns and air weapons. Approximately, 2% of all applications are refused for failing to meet strict suitability criteria.

Appendix 1 provides a numerical breakdown of firearms licences across Scotland.

 


 

Call for Evidence Specific Questions

 

 

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

Although the Firearms Act dates back to 1968, there have been a number of updates and amendments to it, and in general terms, the regulatory framework remains fit for purpose. The recent development of Statutory Guidance and a refresh of Non-Statutory Guidance provides an opportunity for all Forces in the United Kingdom to work to nationally consistent principles.

While the regulatory framework is broadly fit for purpose, there are a number of areas which Police Scotland considers could be reviewed and developed.

The Firearms Act 1968 provides two separate statutory tests for firearms and shotgun certificate applicants. Under Section 27(1) of 1968 Act an applicant must demonstrate that

(a)  they are fit to be entrusted with a firearm;

(b)  have good reason for the possession, purchase or acquisition of a firearm or ammunition; and

(c)  that any possession would be without danger to public safety or to the peace.

In comparison, under Section 28(1) and 28(1A) of the 1968 Act, a shotgun applicant must demonstrate, that they can possess a shotgun without danger to public safety or to the peace. A certificate will not be granted or renewed if the chief officer of police is satisfied that the applicant does not have good reason for possessing, purchasing or acquiring one.

Whilst the provisions for both applicants are similar, a shotgun applicant does not need to meet the “fit to be entrusted” test, which applies to firearms.

The Air Weapons and Licensing (Scotland) Act 2015 provides a statutory test for an air weapon certificate holder which is analogous to that of a firearms applicant. This arguably creates a position whereby the test for a shotgun certificate applicant is less stringent than that for an air weapon certificate applicant. Police Scotland is of the view that all three tests should be the same, and include the “fit to be entrusted” test.

There is a similar issue in respect of legislation that sets out the requirements for revocation. Under Section 30A(2) (Revocation of a Firearms Certificate), the legislation states that the certificate may be revoked if the chief officer of police has reason to believe:

(a)  that the holder is of intemperate habits or unsound mind or is otherwise unfitted to be entrusted with a firearm; or

 

(b)  that the holder can no longer be permitted to have the firearm or ammunition to which the certificate relates in his possession without danger to the public safety or to the peace.

 

In addition, under Section 30A(4) the certificate may be revoked if the chief officer of police is satisfied that the holder no longer has a good reason for having in his possession.

 

Under Section 30C(1) (Revocation of a Shotgun Certificate) the legislation states that a shotgun certificate may be revoked by the chief officer of police for the area in which the holder resides if he is satisfied that the holder is prohibited or cannot be permitted to possess a shot gun without danger to the public safety or to the peace.

 


 

 

Under the Air Weapon and Licensing (Scotland) Act 2015, the rules of revocation for air weapons are set out as:

The chief constable must revoke an air weapon certificate if:

 

(a)  the chief constable is satisfied that the holder of the certificate can no longer be permitted to possess an air weapon without danger to the public safety or to the peace, or

 

(b)  the holder is prohibited.

 

In addition, the chief constable may revoke an air weapon certificate if the chief constable has reason to believe that the holder:

 

(i)  is no longer a fit person to be entrusted with an air weapon, or

 

(ii)  no longer has a good reason to use, possess, purchase or acquire an air weapon.

Whilst the police action in dealing with suitability reviews and revocations will always focus primarily on public safety, these differences around “may” or “must” and the specific criteria mentioned in some legislation around “intemperate habits” and “unsound mind” creates the potential for inconsistency. Police Scotland would also highlight that the Firearms Act 1968 is silent on revoking shotgun certificates when the holder no longer has good reason to use, possess, purchase or acquire a weapon.

Police Scotland considers it would useful for the Committee to consider what public expectation would be in respect of applications and revocations, and whether more consistent language and criteria could be applied in the areas of grants, refusals and revocations.

Police Scotland also considers that the powers conferred on the police could be enhanced to improve public safety. At present, where police believe that weapons should be seized pending a review of a certificate holder’s suitability to possess those weapons, officers are reliant on the co-operation of the certificate holder to relinquish those weapons, or where co- operation is not forthcoming, must apply to a Sheriff to obtain a warrant, which can be time- consuming. We consider that where there is reasonable cause to believe that continued possession of firearms, shotguns or air weapons poses an immediate or ongoing risk to public safety, a police officer should have legislative powers to seize those weapons and the associated certificates, pending a suitability review.

It should be noted that during any suitability review period there is no power to temporarily suspend a certificate holder. The seizure of firearms, and all certificates held, is the only means of ensuring public safety while a certificate holder’s continued suitability is reviewed. The provisions of Section 46 of the Firearms Act 1968 for obtaining a warrant only apply where there are reasonable grounds for suspecting there is a danger to public safety or to the peace in connection with a firearm or ammunition. This differs from the grounds for revocation which are provided in the same Act.

In addition, current legislation is written with a bias towards assuming certificate holders are male, and any refresh of legislation should look to address this.

 


 

2.      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?

Although it is recognised that Scotland covers 1/3rd of the landmass of the UK, Police Scotland does not consider the specific geography or rurality of Scotland to be so different to other parts of England and Wales, that UK-wide legislation creates a detriment to Scotland.

Police Scotland considers that there is considerable benefit in dealing with Firearms Licensing within a UK-wide legislative framework. National consistency provides a relatively straight- forward process for licence holders to move between different parts of the country, whether on a permanent basis, or to take part in sport and leisure activities, which are significant in supporting tourism and local economies across Scotland.

It should be noted that visitors from out with the UK, taking part in firearm-related pursuits, are subject to Visitor Permit arrangements, when travelling with their own weapons. As all residents of the UK are certified under the same legislation and guidance, this additional certification is not required when travelling around the United Kingdom.

 

 

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

Police Scotland is acutely aware of the impact that mental health has across society. With statistics suggesting that one in four people will experience some form of mental health illness in their lifetime, it would be naïve to think that this issue would not impact the shooting community in some shape or form.

Any known mental health issue will always be a key consideration for Police Scotland during the grant or renewal of a firearm, shotgun or air weapon certificate. Over the last 4-5 years, Police Scotland has worked closely with GPs to develop systems designed to ensure that medical information is provided and considered during an application, or is brought to the attention of the police while an individual remains a certificate holder. In respect of firearm and shotgun applications, applicants must have a GP complete a mandate in relation to disclosing relevant medical issues and providing medical opinion in respect of the individual’s suitability to possess firearms. A ‘flag’ is placed on the individual’s medical record to highlight any relevant medical issues that manifest after the application phase, and throughout the lifetime of an individual being a certificate holder.

Whilst GPs across Scotland have willingly supported this process, legislative bodies could consider whether such arrangements should be formalised.

Through the Firearms and Explosives Licensing Practitioner Group – Scotland, work has recently been undertaken to develop a joint-authored leaflet for the shooting community, highlighting the support available when dealing with mental health issues (Appendix C). It is acknowledged that mental health can quickly deteriorate for a variety of reasons, which may not be immediately known to the police or medical profession. A whole range of socio- economic factors, such as bereavement and financial pressures, could be a source of acute challenge and concern, and it is critical that individuals can seek support and help in those circumstances.

Police Scotland is aware that firearms can be closely linked to an individual’s employment and/or social pursuits, and such factors need to be considered when dealing with mental health. However, public safety will always be our primary focus.

 


 

It is also important to ensure that any additional measures considered in respect of mental health and firearms licensing do not have the unintended effect of discouraging people from declaring mental health issues, through fear that any declaration may automatically debar them from holding a certificate. In essence, any action that discourages certificate holders from talking openly about their mental health, could have unintended consequences that increase the risk to public safety.

 

 

Further Information

Police Scotland notes that the Committee Chair has commented, that “concern has been raised by some organisations that the firearms licensing service is plagued with delays in the processing of applications”. Through our ongoing engagement and dialogue with interested parties, we are not aware any specific concerns at this time, but would welcome any further detail or clarity on this point.

On an individual basis, delays in processing applications can occur as a result of the applicant, the GP, and/or competing priorities for within policing. Police Scotland has a self-imposed 16- week target to turnaround both renewals and grants. Priority is given to renewals to prevent certificates expiring, as this results in the need to apply extensions, issue police permits or to seize weapons, pending the renewal being completed. Extensions are only granted if the delay has been caused by Police Scotland.

There is ongoing monitoring of systems and processes through NFEL, and in 2021-22, 99.45% of all renewals were completed prior to expiry. Home Office guidance now allows for risk- based considerations to be given to carrying out ‘remote renewals’ for second and subsequent renewals, which removes the need for a home visit. This has the potential to drive further efficiencies within the renewal process.

Similar to other police forces in the United Kingdom, in respect of grants, Police Scotland continues to manage a backlog which developed during COVID-19. This relates to the legislative requirement to conduct a home visit for all grants, which checks could not be carried out during times of social distancing. Police Scotland has also spent the last 12-18 months managing an increase in air weapon renewals, created at the first five year renewal period since the legislation came into force in 2016. At the time of writing, Police Scotland has approximately 900 live grant enquiries, with the majority of them (70%) sitting within the 16 week enquiry period.

Over the last year, Police Scotland has implemented new technology and practices to support and enhance the efficiency and timescales associated with the firearms licensing application process. There is scope for further automation in this area; however, this needs to be managed in the broader context of transformation, IT capability and budgetary constraints.

UK-wide dialogue is ongoing in relation to the enhancement of IT systems for the administration of all Firearms Licensing matters. Police Scotland welcomes the opportunity to be part of a national IT infrastructure to help drive information sharing and bring about further consistency of approach, and to realise the benefits of standardisation and best practice.

 


 

Conclusion

Police Scotland welcomes discussion around firearms licensing. We remain committed to improving the service we give to individual certificate holders and applicants and will continue to work with a full range of stakeholders in an effort to improve policy and practice, whilst ensuring public safety remains at the heart of what we do.

 


 

Appendix 1 Certification in Scotland (September 2022):

 

 

 

 

 

Certification by Individual (September 2022)

Certification

Number of Individuals

Firearm, Shotgun and Air Weapon

5265

Firearm and Shotgun

16343

Firearm and Air Weapon

1098

Firearm Only

2413

Shotgun and Air Weapon

7988

Shotgun Only

14421

Air Weapon Only

13215

TOTAL

60743

 


 

Appendix 2 – Membership of Firearms and Explosives Licensing Practitioner Group – Scotland

British Association for Shooting and Conservation (Current Chair) Scottish Association for Country Sports (Secretariat)

Scottish Countryside Alliance Gun Trade Association Scottish Target Shooting

Scottish Gamekeepers Association British Shooting Sports Council Gamekeepers Welfare Trust Forestry and Land Scotland

British Deer Society Nature Scot

Scottish Rural Mental Health Scottish Land and Estates Police Scotland

National Police Chiefs Council Police Service of Northern Ireland Scottish Government

Home Office

 


 

Appendix 3 Firearms and Mental Health Awareness and Support Leaflet


Firearms and Mental Health Leafl


 

 

 

 

 

October 2022