Up to 80% of airgun owners in Scotland could unwittingly become criminals when a new licensing law comes into effect on January 1, experts have warned. Michael Alexander reports.
When drug-crazed Mark Bonini shot two-year-old Andrew Morton in the head with a pellet fired from an air rifle he had modified to give it more power, the murder shocked the nation and sparked calls for an immediate crackdown on deadly airguns.
Bonini, 27, was jailed for life in August 2005 and ordered to serve a minimum of 13 years.
The drug addict, who was taking pot shots from the window of his Glasgow flat, became the first person in Britain to be convicted of murder using an air gun.
Now, almost 12 years after the killing, and following incessant pressure from campaigners, a new law that requires airgun owners to hold a licence comes into effect on January 1.
The Air Weapons and Licensing (Scotland) Act means air gunners in Scotland will need a Scottish Air Weapon Certificate (AWC), which licences the person, not the airguns themselves.
The licence costs £72 and covers five years, with pro-rata fees applying to applicants between the ages of 14 and 17.
The application process opened on July 1 and, technically, airgun owners have until December 31 2016 to apply.
But Dr Colin Shedden, the Dunkeld-based country director of the British Association for Shooting and Conservation (BASC) Scotland, has warned that more than 400,000 airguns – the vast majority of the estimated 500,000+ thought to be in Scotland – could remain unlicensed when the new law comes into force.
Airgun owners have been warned that only applications received before November 1 will be processed before the new law comes in.
Anyone who applied during November or December and is still awaiting their Scottish AWC on January 1, will have to make alternative arrangements to store their airgun(s) in order to stay on the right side of the new law.
This might mean storing their weapon with a firearms dealer or another certificate holder.
Whilst shot gun owners are covered by their existing certificate, anyone breaking the airgun law could be fined or, in some cases, imprisoned for up to two years.
“We cannot stress enough that people need to take appropriate action,” said Dr Shedden,
“You could be committing an offence as soon as the clock strikes midnight. People need to act before then.
“The most reliable estimate is that there are over 500,000 airguns in Scotland. Even excluding those owned by the 52,000 fire arm and shotgun certificate holders, those already surrendered and those covered by the new licences, that leaves a large number of airguns unaccounted for.”
The BASC was initially against the legislation because it says airgun crime was on the decline. However, it recognises there have been high profile incidents and when the law was passed, it agreed to take a responsible, educational approach to help keep people informed of the change.
There’s a feeling within the BASC, however, that the Scottish Government and Police Scotland have not done enough to keep people informed.
Latest figures show that air weapons were the main firearm in nearly half of all offences involving a gun in Scotland in 2015/16.
Justice Secretary Michael Matheson said the new law is designed to improve public safety by taking air weapons out of the hands of those who would misuse them.
He said: “Every day the police, the public and animal welfare groups have to face the results of air weapon misuse, from anti-social behaviour to horrific and deliberate injuries to wildlife, pets and very occasionally people. By licensing air weapons we will take them out of the hands of those who would misuse them and better protect our communities.
“The new law coming into force is part of our long-standing commitment to eradicate gun crime in Scotland. We are not banning air weapons outright, but ensuring their use is properly regulated and users have a legitimate reason for them.
“We believe the new licence strikes the right balance between protecting communities and allowing legitimate use in a safe environment to continue.
“If you own an air weapon and haven’t had your application processed in time, make sure you’re not breaking the law by storing your air weapon in a safe and appropriate place.”
ACC Mark Williams, of Police Scotland, said:“More than 17,500 unwanted air weapons have been handed in to Police Scotland for secure destruction since the summer, and anyone who still has an air weapon and does not want to apply for a licence can still hand it in.
“We have also received over 10,500 applications, however only those received before November 1, 2016, will be processed before the end of 2016.
“I would encourage anybody who hasn’t had their application processed by December 31 2016, to avoid breaking the law by making alternative arrangements for their air weapon(s) to be with someone who already holds an air weapon or firearms licence, or lodging it with a registered firearms dealer, until they get their licence. If they are holding an air weapon without a licence after December 31 2016, you may be breaking the law and risk prosecution.”
For more information on the new legislation, go to www.airweapon.scot