Written evidence submitted by Cabinet Secretary for Justice and Veterans (FLR0019)

 

Rùnaire a’ Chaibineit airson Ceartas agus Seann- ghaisgich

Cabinet Secretary for Justice and Veterans

Keith Brown MSP

 

F/T: 0300 244 4000

E: scottish.ministers@gov.scot

Pete Wishart MP Chair

Scottish Affairs Committee House of Commons Palace of Westminster London

SW1A 0AA

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

13 October 2022 Dear Pete

I am grateful for the Scottish Affairs Committee’s invitation to the Scottish Government to give evidence as part of the Committee’s inquiry looking at firearms licensing regulations in Scotland.

 

An inquiry into this important subject is timely, particularly given the recent tragic events on and around Skye which the Committee referenced when it announced its plans. I would like to begin by sharing my heartfelt condolences with the victims and families involved in those awful events, and also with all those affected by firearms incidents, including the personnel of our emergency services, on whom we and our communities rely so heavily. While gun crime remains thankfully rare in Scotland and the rest of the UK, these incidents are a reminder of the appalling impact they can have on entire communities when they do occur and of the need constantly to be vigilant and seek improvement in the regulatory regime.

 

Having said that, I will not address the specifics of any incidents that are subject to ongoing criminal investigations. The evidence provided in this response represents general comments and observations about firearms licensing in Scotland.

 

Please accept the annex to this letter as the Scottish Government’s written evidence to the Committee. The response covers each of the questions highlighted in the terms of reference to the inquiry.


 

KEITH BROWN

 


ANNEX: Scottish Government response to the Scottish Affairs Committee inquiry into firearms licensing regulations in Scotland

 

Introduction

 

While Scottish Ministers have a limited operational role in firearms licensing, which is set out in more detail below, the law on firearms in Scotland is a reserved matter by virtue of Section B4 of Schedule 5 to the Scotland Act 1998. The Scottish Government has a co-operative dialogue with the Home Office on the operation of that law – for example, with officials taking part in Home Office led stakeholder groups, such as the Firearms Licensing Enforcement Board and the Firearms Fees Working Group – but only Westminster can make amendments to it.

 

An exception to this reservation is the law on the regulation of air weapons. This is a devolved matter, and the Scottish Parliament legislated to introduce a regulatory regime for air weapons through the Air Weapons and Licensing (Scotland) Act 2015 (“the 2015 Act”).

 

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

 

Firearms crime in Scotland

 

The purpose of firearms licensing regulation is to protect public safety and prevent misuse of firearms. The nature of that regulation in the UK is often said to be amongst the strictest in the world, and serious firearms incidents tend to be relatively uncommon.

 

In Scotland recorded offences involving firearms are at historically low levels. Offences in 2018-19 and 2019-20 saw the lowest and second lowest levels recorded respectively (i.e. 332 offences and 341 offences) since records began in 1980. Figures remain well below the level of previous historic peaks of 1,933 offences recorded in 1992, and 1,260 in 2006-07 (source: https://www.gov.scot/publications/recorded-crimes-offences-involving-firearms- scotland-2018-19-2019-20/).

 

As regards air weapons, since the introduction of licensing legislation we have seen offences in which they were involved fall by almost two-thirds, from 190 in 2015-16 to 71 offences in 2019-20.

 

Operational delivery of firearms licensing

 

Application of firearms legislation in Scotland is an operational matter for the Chief Constable of Police Scotland, and the firearms licensing regime in Scotland is thought to be one of the most efficient in the UK. In 2018 HM Inspectorate of Constabulary in Scotland (HMICS) undertook an Inspection of Firearms Licensing, available at: https://www.hmics.scot/publications/local-policing-inspection-programme-inspection-  firearms-licensing. The HMICS report was broadly positive and reflected that the majority of respondents were satisfied with the licensing service provided by police. Some areas for improvement were identified and many of these recommendations have since been taken forward by Police Scotland.


As in other parts of the UK, one tactic adopted by Police Scotland to remove unneeded weapons from our communities is the promotion of occasional firearm surrender campaigns. Recent campaigns run by Police Scotland are understood to have resulted in almost 400 firearms and items of ammunition being surrendered in May 2022, and 1,501 such items being collected between June and July 2018.

 

UK firearms legislation

 

The 2018 HMICS review found that “It is generally accepted that the law governing the acquisition and possession of firearms is complex and lacks coherence and clarity” (page 11), and noted that the Scottish Government had supported calls for UK firearms law to be reviewed and updated. Scottish Ministers have written to their UK Government counterparts on several occasions over the years to express concerns about the adequacy of the reserved legislation that underpins firearms licensing in Scotland. As set out above, in terms of preventing offences and delivering an efficient system for users, the licensing regime appears to have been made to work relatively well in Scotland. The hard work of Police Scotland’s licensing teams makes a vital contribution to that, as does a generally positive

relationship between police, the shooting organisations, Scottish Government and others (for example via regular meetings of the Scottish Firearms Practitioners Group).

 

The principal UK legislation, the Firearms Act 1968 (“the 1968 Act”), is over half a century old now and much of its content was consolidated from pre-existing law that is even older than that. The 1968 Act has been further revised and amended multiple times over the decades. This has generally been done with good intent – not least in seeking to address issues arising from the tragic 1996 Dunblane shooting through the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997 but it has created a confusing legal landscape. These issues were reflected in the 2015 Law Commission report on UK firearms legislation (https://www.lawcom.gov.uk/project/firearms/; the Law Commission’s website notes that the recommendations in its report were subsequently implemented by Part 6 of the Policing and Crime Act 2017).

 

The Scottish Government has long argued that UK firearms law is outdated and overdue for comprehensive reform. There have been positive steps in recent years, such as the introduction of new statutory guidance for police that came into force in November 2021 (https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/statutory-guidance-for-police-on-firearms- licensing), and in other areas such as the clarification of laws concerning antique firearms. These steps are welcome and the Scottish Government appreciates the Home Office’s co- operation with officials and Police Scotland in their development. There is still more that could and should be done. Specific examples of areas for improvement are given in the remainder of this paper, particularly in the comparison between Scottish air weapon law and UK firearms law.

 

         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?

 

Scottish Government licensing function

 

As noted above, our dialogue with Police Scotland and the views of HMICS have helped inform the Scottish Government’s view that the adequacy of firearms licensing regulations is capable of significant general improvement.


However, the Scottish Government’s direct involvement in day-to-day firearms licensing is extremely limited. The Scottish Ministers are responsible for granting (1) authorisations for the possession, manufacture, sale, transfer, purchase and acquisition of prohibited firearms and ammunition, (2) licences permitting museums to exhibit prohibited firearms and ammunition and (3) approval for target shooting clubs. These licensing decisions are informed by advice provided by police firearms departments, through a close working relationship between police and Scottish Government licensing officials. Within this narrow remit, any unique licensing challenges or requirements that apply to Scotland’s particular circumstances are not routinely brought to our attention.

 

Wider consideration of Scottish requirements

 

Scotland has undoubtedly benefitted from the establishment of a single police force in 2014, which has allowed a consistent approach to firearms licensing across the country that takes into account the varying geography and remoteness of some communities in Scotland.

 

In relation to agricultural communities and countryside sports, we believe that this question would be better answered by Police Scotland, as the licensing body, as well as individuals and organisations representing these interests. It is fully recognised, however, that there is a balance to be struck between legitimate needs for firearm ownership in agricultural communities and for countryside sports, alongside the fundamental priority of community safety.

 

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

 

Mental health of firearms applicants

 

As set out above, firearms licensing regulations here are some of the strictest in the world. Applicants are subject to thorough suitability review by the police before a certificate may be granted or renewed.

 

Since 2016 Police Scotland have proactively considered a firearms applicant’s medical status – considering both physical and mental health issues – as part of these suitability checks. Originally it was an innovative, individual force policy decision by Police Scotland to require a medical proforma signed by the applicant’s GP, however these initial arrangements have been superceded by statutory guidance issued by the Home Office in November 2021. The new guidance requires all firearms applicants in Great Britain to obtain a medical certificate from their GP as part of the application process. The Scottish Government worked closely with police and the Home Office on the development of the statutory guidance and we welcome the additional clarity it brings. We will take a similarly constructive approach to any review of the statutory guidance.

 

Thanks to the early work by Police Scotland these processes are already well-established in Scotland and around 95% of GP practices engage positively with the firearms licensing process. In January 2022 Scotland’s Chief Medical Officer and Police Scotland wrote to all GPs in Scotland with revised advice in light of the new Home Office statutory guidance (https://www.sehd.scot.nhs.uk/cmo/CMO(2022)05.pdf). The process remains entirely voluntary for individual GPs and relies on their willing participation to help protect public safety.


Since 2016 GPs in Scotland have also used encoded medical markers on the patient’s record to show that they hold firearms. This enables medical professionals to notify police if there are any changes to a person’s health or personal circumstances which might have a bearing on their suitability to possess firearms during the certificate’s 5 year lifespan.

 

In 2022 the Scottish shooting organisations – through the Scottish Firearms Licensing Practitioners Group which brings together shooters, government and police to consider firearms issues – took the initiative to produce and pay for a leaflet aimed at firearms users, and their friends and families, highlighting the importance of good mental health and of alerting the authorities where there are concerns. While this leaflet was not produced in response to any specific incident, it does represent a growing awareness of mental health issues and their importance in the shooting community.

 

As this work shows, mental health has been a significant focus for firearms licensing in Scotland – and more widely in the UK – over the past few years and we believe that progress is already being made, and will continue to be made. We are also mindful that much of this good work relies on the willing participation of shooters and doctors. There is a need to consider whether additional legislation and guidance in this area would deliver improvements, or simply result in conditions not being disclosed in the first place, having the opposite of the intended effect.

 

Other licensing issues: suitability tests

 

In Scotland two licensing regimes operate side-by-side, for firearms (including shotguns) under reserved UK law and for air weapons under devolved Scottish law. When the Scottish Government developed the Bill that would become the 2015 Act, we were mindful of the need for any new air weapons regime in Scotland to work alongside existing firearms regulations, while also delivering improvements.

 

Central to the successful operation of licensing as a whole is the suitability test for grant of a certificate. Under existing UK law the suitability test for a shotgun certificate under section 28 of the 1968 Act is different to that for a firearm certificate (e.g. for a rifle) under section 27 of the 1968 Act. In both cases police must be satisfied that there is no danger to public safety or the peace; however for a firearm certificate the applicant must also satisfy police that they are a fit and proper person, and that they have a good reason for requiring the weapon. For shotguns there is no fit and proper person requirement, and the onus is on police to satisfy themselves that the applicant does not have good reason for requiring a shotgun.

 

The Scottish Government is not clear that the current test for grant of a shotgun certificate is sufficient, and considers that there may be a case for it to be brought in line with that for a firearms certificate – i.e. by addition of a fit and proper person requirement, and by placing the onus on the applicant to demonstrate their good reason to police. When we produced our air weapon legislation we aligned the test for air weapons – set out at section 5 of the 2015 Act – with the more stringent test for firearm certificates, on this basis. Air weapons, shotguns and firearms are all lethal weapons and the same basic standard should be applied to those who wish to possess them. Our regular discussions with police indicate that the majority of firearm users in Scotland appear to hold both a firearm and a shotgun certificate, or all three types of certificate contemporaneously, so in practice aligning the tests should have little impact for most certificate holders who already undergo the ’higher’ test for firearm ownership.


On the same basis, we also believe that the test for revocation of a shotgun certificate set out at section 30C of the 1968 Act should be brought in line with the test for revocation of a firearm certificate at section 30A of the 1968 Act, as well as the test for revocation of an air weapon certificate at section 11 of the 2015 Act. This would empower police to apply a consistent approach to grant and revocation of certificates across the board.

 

Other licensing issues: improving efficiency

 

There are other, more practical aspects of Scottish air weapons legislation which we believe could helpfully be considered in any review of wider UK firearms law, in order to streamline processes and improve clarity for users. To provide the Committee with some examples:

 

 

 

 

Other priority issues about which the Scottish Government has written to the UK Government in recent years are:

 

 


Conclusion

 

The Scottish Government would like to see improvements made to existing UK level firearms legislation. We would be happy to engage with UK Government colleagues on this to ensure that our reflections as set out in this evidence, incorporating our learning from the regulation of air weapons, as well as the perspectives of a full range of stakeholders with relevant experience and interests, can help to shape wider firearms regulation.

 

October 2022