Written evidence submitted by the Gun Control Network (FLR0020)

 

 

 

WRITTEN EVIDENCE TO THE SCOTTISH AFFAIRS COMMITTEE

 

FIRARMS LICENSING REGULATIONS IN SCOTLAND

 

The evidence submitted by the Gun Control Network (GCN) addresses the following issues:

 

1.       How adequate are the current processes of firearms licensing regulation, most of which apply throughout Great Britain and thus relate to Scotland?

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

3.       To what extent is it necessary to change the process for obtaining a firearms licence, in particular to place greater emphasis on an applicant’s mental health?

 

Principles Informing the Control of Guns

 

GCN’s evidence is based on three principles:

 

1.       All guns are intrinsically a danger to the public; therefore, the fewer guns there are in a society the safer the public will be.

2.       Public safety is paramount and should not be compromised by any lack of resources or by vested interests.

3.       Firearms ownership is a privilege not a right, and licensing has to be a service to the public, not to the shooter.

 

As a point of information, and to provide some background, the Committee might wish to note that throughout GCN’s existence, since it was established after the Dunblane tragedy in 1996, its support of further control on guns, whether by legislation or licensing reform, has been routinely and often vociferously opposed by the British Association of Shooting and Conservation (BASC) and other shooting organisations.

 

A.      How Adequate in General is Gun Control in Great Britain?

 

There are two elements to this:

 

    1. Legislation

 

Whilst acknowledging that existing legislation to control guns in Great Britain is very strong, there remain a number of anomalies that are constantly being exploited by gun manufacturers and shooting enthusiasts. Reform to the legislation is needed to address these loopholes, which include:

 


i.            Some emerging weapons falling through the legislative net — these include new semi- automatic centre fire .22 rifles, pump action weapons for Practical Shotgunning, new blank firers that can be easily converted, and 3D guns.

ii.            Airsoft weapons not being prohibited, in spite of legislation to restrict imitation firearms introduced in the Violent Crime Reduction Act 2006 — these weapons often look identical to a real firearm and in many circumstances would appear just as threatening,

iii.            The incomplete nature of the ban on handguns, which still allows some weapons ‘of special interest’ to be kept and fired at so-called heritage sites.

iv.            The continuing lack of airgun certification in England and Wales.

 

    1. Licensing

 

The primary weakness in the regulatory system is how the licensing process is conducted and its lack of rigour. All of Britain’s multiple shootings, e.g. Hungerford, Monkseaton, Dunblane, Cumbria, Horden, Plymouth, as well as other incidents listed in Appendix A, have highlighted failures in the process, to which the following may have contributed:

 

i.            Inadequate guidance resulting in, for example, failure to require family and household members or GPs to be consulted about any mental health problems or alcohol /drug abuse.

ii.            A lack of resources resulting, for example, in failure to make home visits, to follow up public and social media concerns or to integrate police data.

iii.            A cosy relationship between police and shooters resulting in, for example, a disinclination to follow up family or neighbour concerns, some of which are highlighted in Appendix A.

 

B.      Is Scotland a Special Case?

 

    1. Legislation

 

The unique Scottish precedent of airgun certification, introduced at the end of 2016, has demonstrated again that tighter legislation does lead to a reduction in gun crime. Coinciding with the introduction of certification, the number of airgun offences fell by almost two thirds during the five-year period ending 2019-20, when just 71 offences were recorded (Recorded Crimes and Offences Involving Firearms, Scotland, 2018-19 and 2019-20, Scottish Government, June 2022). No equivalent fall occurred in England and Wales, where most air weapons are still free of regulation (Firearms Crime Statistics: England and Wales, House of Commons Library, August 2002). Gun control does work, and Scotland has demonstrated a particular willingness to accept the evidence-based case for this.

    1. Licensing

 

Two distinct categories of gun owner are relevant in rural Scotland — farmers who need a gun to shoot vermin and ‘sport shooters’ who kill birds and animals for sport. Although the number of firearms and shotgun certificates issued fell between 2019 and 2022, the number of licences currently in circulation


remains high, 25,646 for firearms and 45,420 for shotguns, covering 105,314 and 131,676 weapons respectively (Firearms Licencing, Annual Statistical Publication, Police Scotland, 2020/2021).

 

The figures for firearm ownership indicate that on average four weapons are held per person, for shotguns the average is three. Even allowing for each farmer to have a gun to shoot vermin, we would question why this excess number of weapons would be necessary in most cases. We suggest that in order to avoid a needless accumulation of guns in the community, shotguns should individually be subjected to the same rigorous licensing as rifles and brought under Section 1 of the Firearms Act 1968.

 

In relation to ‘sport shooting’, BASC and others have for decades claimed that shooting and conservation go hand in hand. This claim was largely unchallenged until animal protection groups became increasingly involved and once investigative reporting began to reveal the widespread brutality and waste of the sport shooting industry. This appalling example has recently been exposed:

 

https://www.animalaid.org.uk/new-film-exposes-the-brutality-and-waste-of-the-shooting-industry/

 

Shooting enthusiasts have argued that the ‘sport shooting industry’ brings income into rural communities. We would counter that too little effort has been made to find alternative ways of turning wildlife and wild places into income streams. This is something that has been achieved successfully elsewhere, for example in most parts of Africa where big game hunting has been replaced by alternative income generation through photographic safaris and ‘wild experiences’. BASC’s plea for a smoother and easier licensing system sits uncomfortably with this new narrative of an industry whose very existence relies on animal cruelty, and because of shooters’ continuing reluctance to move away from lead shot, continued environmental contamination of land and watercourses.

 

Indeed, it might be appropriate to consider the introduction of protection orders for areas of the Scottish rural landscape to provide a prescribed distance around a unique feature, community or landscape to protect it from shooting activities. Although not related to game shooting, the case of Eskdalemuir, Dumfriesshire, is relevant and of significant concern as it highlights how shooting enthusiasts can exploit the wild spaces of Scotland and alienate others in the process. Despite legitimate fears about the risks posed to their community by the firing of high velocity rifles on local ranges, something that has also destroyed the tranquillity of the local Buddhist Centre, Eskdalemuir residents appear powerless against vested interested parties who wish to pursue their shooting activities.

 

In general, the licensing process in rural areas, such as large parts of Scotland, has been characterised by a close relationship between firearms licensing officers and gun owners. This can lead to a lack of rigour in licensing whenever the police turn blind eyes to gun owners who commit technical or minor offences, who have come to notice because of concerning behaviour such as domestic violence, drug or alcohol abuse, or because their mental health is deteriorating. Concerns raised by family members, neighbours or other members of the public may be glossed over with tragic consequences. The introduction of an independent element into the licensing process might prevent this from happening.


C.      Licensing reform and mental health

 

Following the tragic shootings in Keyham, Plymouth, in August 2021, GCN published a Manifesto for Gun Licensing Reform (Appendix B). It covers our recommendations in relation to key issues including the duration of licences, the cost and independence of the licensing system and the establishment of a gun hotline.

 

One particular element which received much publicity after the shootings in Keyham was the apparent poor mental health of the perpetrator. Questions were asked about why this was not picked up by the licensing authority, who had approved the return of his gun despite clear indications of his instability and unsuitability. Similar concerns had been raised following other multiple shootings in Britain, e.g. Hungerford, Dunblane, Horden, as well as after many other tragic multiple shootings around the world. Poor mental health, when combined with the easy availability of a gun in the home, is almost always a significant contributory factor in such tragedies. Sadly, that may include the incident on the Isle of Skye in August 2022.

 

In policy terms all of this points clearly towards two reforms more frequent and rigorous checks on gun owners, and the involvement of medical practitioners in the licensing process. Mental health can deteriorate very quickly, and so licences should last for a maximum of two years, and, as GCN has been urging for many years, GPs should be routinely (and continuously) involved in the process. The latter reform is now being implemented despite long-standing and vociferous opposition from BASC and others. It remains to be seen whether shooters are content to pay for this, and the wider public needs to be assured that they will.

 

Summary

 

Licensing needs to be reformed as per our Manifesto (see Appendix B), not least by raising the cost of a gun licence (see below).

The cost of a gun licence must be increased significantly so that the total amount of a reformed gun licensing system is covered by those who want the privilege to use guns. This should not be the marginal cost of each new licence and must include the full cost of the licensing administration. Only then will the police have the resources to keep the public safe.

 

Loopholes in the legislation, as outlined above, need to be addressed and closed.


APPENDIX A. Examples of Failures in Firearms Licensing in Britain which resulted in Multiple Gun Fatalities

 

In all these cases the Perpetrator was a Licensed Gun Owner. This is not an exhaustive list, and every year there are other instances of murder-suicides where questions about the mental health of the gun-owning perpetrator should have been raised. The issues involved are addressed in the attached ‘Manifesto for Gun Licensing Reform’.

 

South Harrow, London, 2001 4 deaths. A licensed gun owner fatally shot his wife, daughter and son in a domestic murder-suicide incident. The perpetrator was known to have had treatment for behavioural problems, a history of mental illness and a diagnosis referring to outbursts of irrational behaviour’. A few days before the shootings he had attended hospital regarding an overdose of insulin but had self- discharged and failed to act on advice to see a psychiatrist. It later emerged that his wife had asked for a divorce.

 

Maesbrook, Shropshire, 2008 2 deaths. A licensed gun owner fatally shot his wife and daughter, also killing family dogs and horses. The perpetrator died from smoke inhalation in an ensuing fire. He was known by a close family member to have had enjoyed inappropriate close links to police with friendships maintained through gun clubs, shooting-related social activities and shooting events.

 

Locations in Cumbria, 2010 13 deaths. A licensed gun owner fatally shot his twin brother, the family solicitor and a fellow taxi driver in a domestic/victim known to perpetrator incident which escalated to involve victims who were unknown to the perpetrator. The perpetrator had been in dispute with family members over his father’s will, was under investigation regarding tax evasion, had resigned from Sellafield Nuclear Power Station following a conviction for theft which resulted in a suspended sentence and was known to hold grudges against other taxi drivers about fares and rank order.

 

Horden, Co. Durham, 2012 4 deaths. A licensed gun owner fatally shot his partner and her sister and niece in a domestic murder-suicide incident. An IPCC Investigation found failures by Durham Police Firearms Licensing who had temporarily seized the perpetrator’s weapons but later returned them. The police had failed to investigate the perpetrator’s violent past.

 

Farnham, Surrey, 2014 2 deaths. A licensed gun owner fatally shot his partner and her daughter. The perpetrator’s weapons had been confiscated following threats to people including his later victims after his weapons were returned against the wishes of a member of the victims’ family. An IPCC investigation reported findings that were ‘deeply concerning’, and a police investigation resulted in one officer being sacked, two cases of misconduct and one of gross misconduct, while another officer retired before the investigation.

 

Woodmancote, West Sussex, 2020 4 deaths. A licensed gun owner fatally shot his partner and their two daughters in a domestic murder-suicide incident.  At the inquest it was established that the


perpetrator had failed to disclose a caution for theft and treatment for a mental health condition on his application form. Police became aware that the applicant had made a false declaration, but disregarded this and granted him a licence. The applicant was also reported to have been suffering from financial difficulties, his building business having been dissolved in October 2019.

 

Keyham, Plymouth, 2021 6 deaths. A licensed gun owner shot his mother in a domestic incident which escalated to involve victims unknown to him before he killed himself. An IPCC investigation report is awaited. Devon and Cornwall Police had temporarily seized the perpetrator’s weapons in December 2020 following a violent incident in a park, but these were then returned to him in July 2021. The perpetrator’s father is reported to have contacted police saying his son had mental health issues and should not have a gun licence, and his mother is reported to have contacted the Government’s Counter Terrorism Programme about her fears over her son’s behaviour and activities.


APPENDIX B. Manifesto for Gun Licensing Reform

 

Gun Control Network, 22 August 2021

 

This manifesto is based on three premises:

 

 

This manifesto is designed to limit the number of guns and gun licences, so as to reduce the risk of guns falling into the hands of unstable people or criminals.

 

    1. The licensing regime must be adequately resourced and the licence fees raised significantly so as to provide full cost recovery.

 

    1. Shotguns should be subject to the same rigorous licensing as rifles, i.e. they should all be brought under Section 1 of the Firearms Act 1968. Each gun would then be licensed separately.

 

    1. Licences should last for 2 years not 5.

 

    1. GPs should maintain a marker on the records of gun owners and inform police of material changes to patients’ mental health. Applicants should be responsible for paying fees to GPs for this service.

 

    1. Spouses, partners and household members should be consulted when there is an application for a gun licence.

 

    1. Other sources of relevant information, including social media postings, should be included in background checks.

 

    1. The court costs of revocation of a licence should not fall to the individual police force.

 

    1. A ‘good reason’ to have a gun should be re-defined so as to limit the number of guns someone can hold. The current average is 4.

 

    1. Closer scrutiny of gun clubs, including their relationship with their members, is necessary.

 

    1. An independent element representing ‘the public’ should be introduced into the licensing process so as to monitor relationships between shooters and Firearms Licensing Officers.

 

    1. A gun hotline should be established for those who are concerned about the behaviour of a gun owner, including their online activity.

 

October 2022