An air of reluctant acceptance is forming around the oncoming Scottish airgun licensing scheme, says Nick Robbins, but the fight isn’t over yet
Disappointed, but not surprised. My sentiments, and I expect those of many others, when faced with the news that Scotland had put forward the Air Weapons and Licensing (Scotland) Bill.
But first, a quick diversion: I’ve recently taken to in-play betting on football matches around the world. There’s no other feeling in existence that can equate to the sweet ecstasy when a bet on an Ecuadorian reserve team pays off. It may not have the magic of a World Cup final, but that’s not what betting is about. The smart man works on odds and form – cold, hard, impersonal numbers that you can try to draw patterns from.
That smart man would have been thrown, though, if he’d read the stats on airguns in Scotland. The 87 per cent of respondents who, during the Scottish government’s consultation period, objected to licensing; the 22,601 people who signed a petition against licensing proposals in Scotland; and the form book showing that airgun crime has fallen in Scotland for six consecutive years, from a peak of 683 offences in 2006-07 to just 171 in 2012-13.
So with public favour against it, and with quantifiable numbers showing that airgun misuse wasn’t a growing problem in desperate need of addressing, to the overseas gambler looking at the future legislation in Holyrood market, putting money on ‘no airgun licensing Bill’ would have looked like a dead-cert. But in the end the numbers meant little. There was a grim inevitability that it was coming, regardless of the sterling efforts of the shooting organisations and public who rallied to make their opinions heard.
This shouldn’t mark the end of those efforts. As Harold Wilson is attributed with saying, ‘A week is a long time in politics’, and it’s going to take a lot longer than seven days for the Air Weapons and Licensing (Scotland) Bill to pass through parliament. Estimates suggest that it could be as late as 2016 before licensing comes into effect, so there is still plenty of time for anti-licensing sentiment to make itself felt in Holyrood. With an estimated 500,000 airguns in Scotland – and we can assume a number of airgunners also in the hundreds of thousands – there’s a sizeable pro-airgun voice that can make itself heard come election time.
Plus, there are other issues for Scotland to face – with the independence referendum looming and a general election next year.
That anti-licensing sentiment is now more easily expressed with the Bill and its associated documentation available for public consumption. As feared, the licensing system looks set to unfairly affect those who use airguns in a responsible manner. In particular, the government has set out its desire to stamp down on airgun ownership within an urban setting. This could spell the end of ‘plinking’ for those who live within the cities and towns of Scotland. Under the terms of the Bill, an airgun licence can only be granted where there is ‘good reason’ to own an airgun – ‘pest control, sporting target shooting, or being a collector’ are the examples listed in Bill’s explanatory notes document. And the policy memorandum attached to the Bill explicitly states that: “One of the primary aims of the licensing regime is to prevent the use of air weapons in unsuitable or unsafe areas, or where their use may cause concern or alarm. Such areas may include… plinking in gardens or other urban or highly populated settings.” It later concedes that ‘plinking’ is a way of getting young shooters to ‘take up the sport on a more regular, organised basis’, but says the government’s ‘wider responsibility’ for safety may outweigh this.
The Scottish government’s Business and Regulatory Impact Assessment (BRIA) on the Air Weapon and Licensing (Scotland) Bill casts a worrying forecast for airgun retailers in Scotland. “The Scottish Government accepts that there may be an adverse impact on sales figures as a result of this legislation coming into force,” the BRIA states in Annex A, before going on to conclude: “Sales of lower-powered weapons are likely to reduce as a proportion of all sales. The Government believes that such a reduction is justified in terms of the wider benefits to public safety.”
Not only does the licensing system potentially cut off youngsters from enjoying the sport, but it also predicates – in the eyes of the Scottish government at least – a downturn in air rifle sales in Scotland. My biggest fear is that the Scottish government is trying to kill off the airgun industry via a death by a thousand cuts. The licensing system is in no way an outright ban – but the knock-on effects of its finer details could produce some truly devastating outcomes. How are young shooters supposed to take up airgunning? The BRIA suggests than a ‘benefit’ of the licensing system is that more airgun clubs will be set up – and the Bill’s policy memorandum document states: ‘Shooting at properly operated and approved air weapon clubs will be encouraged as a matter of policy’ – but who is going to set these clubs up and where are they going to go? A number of new clubs would need to spring up quickly, and be large enough – and close enough to urban centres – to satisfy the ‘good reason’ clause for many individuals’ licence application.
Let’s hope the Commonwealth games aren’t a dangerous portent (by the way, the Bill will force visiting airgun shooters will to apply for a permit to bring their airgun into Scotland, which will create organisational chaos for any future international shooting events in the country). The decision to hold the shooting events in a ‘satellite’ venue, a two-hour drive from the Glasgow hub of the games, looks worrying when placed in context. This ‘out of sight, out of mind’ decision has even led Airgun Shooter editor Nigel Allen to refer to the Games as ‘Dundee 2014’, as the Barry Buddon range is closer to that city than Glasgow.
I strongly hope that the Games allow airguns to be portrayed in a positive light in Scotland. I’ll be backing Scottish shooters like Jen McIntosh to succeed.
I noted with interest that Kenny MacAskill suffered an embarrassing parliamentary climb-down in April when he was forced to U-turn on his position to scrap corroboration in criminal cases, which demands that evidence must come from two sources. We can but hope that further well directed pressure in the press, in the polling stations, and in MSPs’ inboxes could effect the same outcome on airgun licensing.