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The Costs and Consequences of the Air Weapons and Licensing (Scotland) Act 2015

The Countryside Alliance's Jack Knott investigates the potentially significant problems arising from the implementation of airguns licensing in Scotland. This article originally featured in Sporting Shooter.

As the Air Weapons and Licensing (Scotland) Act 2015 became statute on 1st January 2017 the consequences for the number of people using airguns and those whose jobs involved the manufacturing, selling and use of airguns remained unclear. Whilst I would never fault the Scottish Government's determination to take away airguns from those that wish to use them illegally, this introduction of draconian red tape threatens to impact only the legal community, while allowing criminals to continue unperturbed.

As the licensing scheme enters the half year mark there is a growing picture of the impact on the airgun community, the same impacts which were continuously predicted but neglected by the governing powers in the drafting of the legislation.

Only time will tell if the legislation is successful in reducing the crime committed with airguns. But the question remains whether this legislation was necessary, especially as Scottish crime statistics continue to drop. Whilst airguns have consistently been the most commonly identified weapon used in recorded offences involving a firearm, the use of airguns in crime has dramatically decreased, from 683 cases in 2006-07 to 158 in 2015-16. There was a 15% decrease in airgun crime in the last year alone. Although a faster reduction in crime would of course be welcomed, will criminals using airguns be troubled by the fact they now have to have them licensed? The pessimist in me thinks not...

In truth only those that wish to use airguns legally will bother to have them licenced. Others hoping to stay on the right side of the law have either handed their airguns into the police or sold them on.

Police Scotland, who were originally against the proposed legislation citing increased administration and lack of resources, have claimed success with their airgun 'amnesty' in the run up to the implementation of the legislation. By December 2016 over 18,000 airguns had been handed over to the Police. These 18,000 airguns were not being used by criminals but everyday Scots who thought the effort and cost of applying for a licence outweighed the enjoyment. But whilst the Police are rewarding themselves for getting all these dangerous weapons off the street, the number of criminals holding unlicensed airguns has not changed. The aim of this legislation is to reduce crime and yet the only thing reduced is those that shoot vermin and/or targets perfectly legally.

With the reduction in airgun users there comes worry for the future. Airguns are the gateway for young generations to enjoy shooting safely and progress to other formats of the sport. There will be many parents unwilling to pay the licence fee and, furthermore, think that because of airguns are licenced they are now more dangerous. Scotland has a proud history of target and game shooting; this licence will only affect the future of the sport not the criminals.

There is a further worry that local access to pest control has been made that much harder. One Countryside Alliance member and farmer in Aberdeen has been told us that his local vermin controller has already given up shooting because of the legislation, meaning that he will have to take time out of his day to do it. He said: 'It is hard to quantify the cost to me but it certainly means that now I will have to shoot the pigeons and rats on the farm, adding a couple of days pest control and cost to our farming calendar'. Whilst this might not be much for one farm, taken in a national context it adds up to a serious cost.

The new regime is having unintended, but easily anticipated, consequences for the gun trade too. George Whitford, owner of R. Welsh & Sons gun shop in Duns, explained: 'Sales of airguns have evaporated, the value of new airguns has disappeared and currently you cannot give away second-hand airguns. Airguns were a large part of the business up until six months ago.' This will be the same across all gun shops in Scotland, with knock on effects in England and Wales as well.

There are an estimated 500,000 airguns in Scotland. As of January 2017, only 7,000 licences were in the process of being granted and 18,000 airguns had been handed over to the Police. Even taking into consideration the fact that those already holding a firearm and/or shotgun certificate are exempt, this still leaves a vast number of airguns unaccounted for. In many cases people will be unaware they are holding their airguns illegally, and I am sure there are some who have forgotten they are holding airguns at all; these people are not criminals but unfortunately will now be treated as such. The legislation is clearly not fit for purpose, as Scottish Conservative shadow justice secretary Douglas Ross recently declared, 'This unnecessary process has been a mess from the start.'

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