Thank you, convener, and thanks for the opportunity to give evidence to the committee today.
Part 1 of the Air Weapons and Licensing (Scotland) Bill is principally about people, albeit that it sets out a licence regime that reflects the Firearms Act 1968, which deals with firearms and shotgun licensing. It is accepted that the law surrounding access to firearms is about public safety. As far as Police Scotland is concerned, the bill is about ensuring that inappropriate people do not get access to lethal barrelled weapons that can, by definition, kill.
The case of Andrew Morton, who was a two-year-old toddler when he was shot in the head by a man with an airgun in 2005, is a tragic example of what can happen when the wrong people have access to lethal barrelled weapons. Thankfully, such tragic incidents are very rare, but on most days the police and animal welfare groups have to deal with the results of air weapons being misused. Legislation that allows for responsible ownership of air weapons is to be welcomed. Air weapons in irresponsible hands are dangerous, and keeping people safe is the priority for Police Scotland.
As the committee will be aware, the chief constable of the police service in Scotland is responsible for licensing of firearms and shotguns, and of explosives. We understand that there is significant uncertainty about the number of air weapons in Scotland and, consequently, about the demand that will be placed on the police by the bill’s proposals, but it is a fact that we have at this time systems in place that cope with more than 53,000 certificate holders. Shogun—the information and communication technology system that is used to manage firearms in Scotland—has recently been linked up, which allows for the eight firearms-licensing processing centres effectively to manage workloads throughout Scotland. It can be relatively easily adapted to manage air weapons.
In other words, we have the expertise and experience to process applications and manage the risks. However, we do not have the budget to fund satisfying of that additional demand. Costs will be incurred in upgrading Shogun, in resourcing the departments that will administer the licensing regime and in subsequent criminal justice processes, for example ballistics examination. That is set against unknown demand.
We welcome the provisions of the bill, which will allow current certificate holders to possess air weapons under their firearms or shotgun certificates. That will reduce the demand on police resources.
The committee may be aware that, with the revisions that were introduced by the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997, the term of certificates was increased from three years to five. That caused peaks and troughs in demand: there are three extremely busy years and two years in which demand reduces. In the light of that experience, it is essential that we legislate for a system that smoothes or, as the earlier witnesses said, phases demand. That could be done by allowing the chief constable to determine the length of time for which a first air weapon certificate is issued. By doing that, and by setting a pro rata fee for the length of the first certificate, we can assess demand and allocate resources as required.
I understand that this is stage 1 of the bill and that amendments will likely follow after the committee’s and the Parliament’s considerations. That said, I reiterate that we commend the intention of the bill. We are of the opinion that it will reduce the ability of people who are intent, by design or recklessness, on criminally injuring people or animals, or on damaging property to do so.
The vast majority of people who legally hold firearms conduct their lives in a manner that reflects their acceptance of the responsibility for the safe use of their guns. The number of crimes involving legally held firearms is small in proportion to the number of guns that are held. Those people will not be detrimentally affected by the proposed legislation, but the people who should not have guns will be affected in a way that will only benefit the safety of people in Scotland.