The Airgun Licensing Bill was passed at Holyrood earlier this year – but now MSPs may find its implementation more troublesome than they’d anticipated

The Airgun Licensing Bill was passed at Holyrood earlier this year – but now MSPs may find its implementation more troublesome than they’d anticipated.

Airgun Shooter editor, Nigel Allen, speaks to some airgun retailers north of the border to find out how the Scottish Airgun Licence is affecting their businesses.

At the time of writing, the implementation date of the Scottish Airgun Licence (SAL) is still anyone’s guess – but most of Scotland’s airgun dealerships appear to be going with 1 April, either through hearsay, or simply because it seems an apt point on the calendar to commence such a foolish law.

Lest we forget, airgun offences account for just 0.06 per cent of all crimes committed in Scotland, and have reduced by 73 per cent from their peak in 2006-07. Far from achieving a safer Scotland, it’s clear from the feedback from both airgun traders and their clientele that the introduction of the SAL could very well be rocking what was otherwise a settled state of affairs.

As we head into 2016, I’ve been canvassing opinion of a number of Scotland’s airgun retailers, as well as finding out how the market is reacting ahead of the new legislation. What’s transpiring is that the eventual introduction of SAL looks likely to be greeted in two ways, neither of which can be viewed as an altogether positive result from a politician’s perspective.

Firstly, in the expectation that they’ll be forced to pay around £80 (a figure of conjecture) for their airgun licence, many Scottish airgunners are already submitting applications for a Section One Firearm Certificate (FAC) in lieu of getting a SAL. In other words, existing users of low-powered airguns are now considering either a high-powered air rifle, or even a full-blown rimfire.

Carl Dawber from Lochmaben Shooting Supplies in Dumfriesshire, an establishment where air rifle sales represent close to 70 per cent of the business, told me: “At least one in 10 of my regular customers have said to me, ‘**** it. I may as well go for a full firearms licence for that money!’ And even though I tell them that they’ll probably be in for a long wait, they seem quite committed to ‘upgrading’ from an airgun to something much more powerful.”

Carl is not the only one to be fully aware that Police Scotland’s licence-issuing departments are already creaking, and it’s actually a serious hurdle that the Scottish lawmakers have got to clear. Their ill-founded directive certainly doesn’t have the backing of Police Scotland if you go by what the authorities are feeding back to the gun shop owners themselves.

The sentiments of Ross Haygarth, owner of C H Haygarth & Sons in Caithness, were echoed by many other dealers: “Police Scotland clearly doesn’t want the extra work,” Ross said. “They can’t cope with the bureaucracy of the current system now, especially my Northern Constabulary, which is the busiest licence issuer outside of the Met.

“How on earth are all these departments going to cope under the weight of a huge new firearm class requiring certification? Even with an extended rollout period, Police Scotland is sure to have a massive influx of applications for new licences from tens of thousands of airgunners.”

And with a reputed 500,000 airguns in circulation north of the border, “tens of thousands” could even be on the conservative side. Indeed, Bruce MacMartin of Glasgow’s Tackle & Guns store told me that after the legislation was approved by Holyrood, he’d proactively notified around 6,000 former airgun-shooting customers to contact their local firearms department.

“Since the Violent Crime Reduction Act, I’ve got the contact details of every shooter who’s bought an airgun from me,” he said, “and I’ve made it my duty to tell them all to at least contact their firearms officers to find out more about the new licence. Even if only a small percentage does this, it’ll certainly show the scale of the task ahead, and hopefully the response levels will spur the police into standing their ground with the politicians.”

According to many of the airgun retailers I spoke to, Police Scotland’s unwillingness to take on the added burden of administering so many new airgun licences appears to be common knowledge among the airgunning public. In the debates which preceded Holyrood’s final decision, it was put forward that the full-scale licensing of a legitimate pastime – which the statistics amply demonstrate is safe and of no significant danger to the public – could have serious potential to inadvertently criminalise many law-abiding shooters. That now seems to be panning out.

 Many Scottish airgunners are choosing to go ‘all in’ with an FAC, rather than wait to apply for a SAL.

Many Scottish airgunners are choosing to go ‘all in’ with an FAC, rather than wait to apply for a SAL.

From the initial message many gun dealers are picking up from their customers, the term ‘inadvertently’ is to be used loosely. Because while some Scottish airgunners are resigned to the fact that they have to apply and fork out on an airgun licence, many more are simply going to deliberately ignore the new legislative requirement.

A good 75 per cent of the shops I spoke to reported that while they initially saw airgun sales dip with the announcement of the SAL, as April 2016 approaches, they’re now seeing a steady uplift. This they attribute to many of their customers openly telling them they believe the police will either ‘not bother’ or ‘not be able’ to enforce the law, so they’re going to stock up on airguns now, and not bother getting a SAL. Some customers have even told gun dealers they’ll continue to buy airguns in England, and then ‘smuggle’ them back across the border.

Perhaps such statements are merely bravado, but the fact is that some gun shops are currently seeing big surges in airgun sales, with one Glasgow dealer admitting he’d done four years’ worth of business in seven months (“The storm before the lull,” as he put it).

Of course, every Scottish airgun dealer confirmed they are dutifully advising their customers of the impending law change, but equally they admitted that they can’t really be more specific as to what that law is exactly. “We’ve no idea what’s happening about this daft airgun legislation,” Toby Law of Ross-shire’s R. Macleod & Son told me, “so we can’t tell our customers anything concrete – other than a licence will be necessary at some point in the future.”

Carl Dawber’s Lochmaben store has a public airgun shooting range attached, and as one of the requirements for an SAL to be granted is for the airgunner to be a member of an approved range, he has made an application to his local constabulary to get his range officially ‘approved’. “They basically came back to me and said, ‘We haven’t a clue what to do!’” he told me.

Confusion certainly reigns on both sides of counter – and according to the experiences many RFDs have had with their local constabularies on the subject of airgun licensing, there’s plenty of shoulder-shrugging going on within Police Scotland on all manner of issues, too.

I would hazard a guess that the sound of head-scratching will also be quite loud inside the chambers of Holyrood. As politicians begin to discuss the practicalities of rolling out and administering their new-fangled policy into the real world, the scale of its disproportion could well finally hit home. They may have decided what they want to do, but now they’ve got to administer it – and that’s going to be no easy task.

More than one dealer I spoke with expressed shock that the Scottish airgun licence would be retrospectively applied to all airguns; they were of the belief that it would apply only to those airguns bought after a certain date. Indeed, David McDonald, who runs the small shooting section specialising in cheap-and-cheerful airguns at Edinburgh’s Wonderland Models store, told me that most of his customers “still believe the new law will only apply at an ‘effective from’ date,” no matter how much he impresses upon them that it’s all-encompassing.

And what of any amnesty – the handing in of ‘unwanted’ airguns by those shooters who begrudgingly decide not to get a licence, come the inglorious day? Well, again, no dealer is in a position to give their customers a definitive answer – though Carl Dawber has to be commended for his positive thinking in the face of the shop carpet being pulled from under his feet.

“If there is going to be a hand-in,” he said, “shooters should bring their airguns to me, not the police. I’ll give them a token payment, and then sell the guns on to a dealer outside of Scotland. At least it’ll compensate me a little for the lost revenue this pointless legislation is about to rob me of!”


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