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6 March 2018, 06:36
Social media background checks should be used more often by police considering whether to grant firearms licences, according to a new report.
A review of Police Scotland's approach to firearms licensing suggested social media accounts - which are currently not routinely checked - could be a useful source of information about an applicant's suitability to hold a firearm.
HM Inspectorate of Constabulary in Scotland (HMICS) highlighted cases in England and Wales where extremist views or "inappropriate" photographs came to light which might have had an impact on the issuing of certificates.
HMICS noted the "capacity and capability constraints" faced by Police Scotland but welcomed indications that social media would be used as a source of information in future.
The report on firearms licensing arrangements said that overall significant progress had been made by the force, including the roll-out of a national IT system and training course.
Most checks on applicants to ensure they are suitable to hold a firearm were carried out effectively but assessments could be developed further, it found.
Police Scotland should consider the more frequent use of unannounced home visits as well as the lack of a common IT system for recording fixed penalty notices which might lead to incomplete intelligence, the report said.
HMICS expressed surprise at the lack of more thorough checks on visitors, with almost 5,000 permits for firearms and shotguns issued to people visiting Scotland to shoot in 2017.
The report also backed the force's requirement for applicants to have a medical report as "a significant step forward in protecting the public in Scotland" despite some applicants complaining about the resulting cost and delay.
Criticism was directed at the Scottish Police Authority (SPA) for "a lack of oversight and effective scrutiny" of firearms licensing while it was also necessary to improve communication internally within Police Scotland and externally with applicants.
The report noted that while Police Scotland received over £1.3 million in fees for firearms licensing in 2016/17, this did not meet the full costs of delivering the service.
Other recommendations called for the force to improve training for firearms enquiry officers, explore the possibility of an online application system and consider setting up an independent advisory group on firearms licensing.
Responding to the report, Police Scotland Assistant Chief Constable Mark Williams said: "Public safety is our number one priority and we welcome this HMICS report which praises the significant progress made in the delivery of a consistent and effective firearms licensing service.
"Our service is designed to protect and promote public safety, and evidence suggests the national firearms licensing service is improving and operating efficiently.
"Every firearms certificate granted is done so only after full and proper checks have been carried out. Applicants also have to demonstrate that they use their firearms on a regular, legitimate basis for work, sport or leisure.
"Work has already begun to improve our training and operating model, and the recommendations made will be acted upon.
"We are particularly pleased that HMICS commented positively on the work that has been carried out to ensure that GPs in Scotland are fully engaged in assisting us to make more informed decisions on the medical suitability of applicants for firearms and shotgun certificates. We view this as a significant contribution towards ensuring public safety."