NOBODY knows for sure how many illicit guns are in the hands of Scotland’s gangsters.

But there are, says Steve Johnson, so many that criminals can afford to fire their weapons then throw them away.

Mr Johnson is the assistant chief constable in charge of tackling organised crime and terrorism north of the border. It’s his job to keep an eye on these things. And single-use, throwaway guns concern him.

A firearm, he explains, used to be “a precious commodity so people did not want to lose it.”

“So it would be used by one person and then stored away. And then it would be used again.”

That meant ballistics would show a single gun used in multiple crimes. “The shooter, potentially would be a different person,” Mr Johnson explained. Guns were so rare, they were kept. They were multi-use. That helped law enforcement track and link crimes.

No more. “One of the worrying aspects is that we tend to see a firearm used once,” he said. One of the inferences I draw from that is that there is a supply there. Now it’s ‘use it once, get rid’.

Mr Johnson was speaking after Police Scotland hosted Europe’s first conference on firearms supply, a get-together by police forces from across the UK and the continent on how to track weapons from maker to user. Scotland does not have high gun crime, by any standard. But police are not complacent.

Why? Because there are changing trends. There are still the old ways of getting guns, such as those drifting in to the country from conflicts in Northern Ireland or the Balkans. Or the theft or re-use of farmers’ shotguns or other legal weapons.

But there are new routes too. Simple ones.

By post. UK armers - the criminals who supply other criminals with their guns - have been using darkweb sites to order their weapons, first from the US, then Europe.

Yet there are even more straightforward ways to get a gun: just order online from a country where blank-firing pistols are legal.

Earlier this month Shezad Khan from Glasgow was jailed for three years for buying more than 40 by post such weapons from a Czech supplier. A courier firm had spotted a gun through a broken package. Khan, 44, had spent £3200 on the guns, which were either Italian or Turkish, and planned to auction them on eBay.

Police stress such weapons can be re-engineered to fire live rounds. Earlier this month it emerged that blank-firing automatic pistols made in Turkey, called Zorakis, were being adapted for lethal use in a Bedfordshire shed.

The UK National Crime Agency, however, has now forced one big Czech supplier, the Bullet Project, to stop letting UK customers make orders of weapons which are illegal in Britain. Its deputy director, Sue Southern, said the business had responded positively to a letter explaining blank-firing guns were unlawful.

The Scottish conference heard from experts in Slovakia, where some weapons are made, and from the Czech Republic, where blank guns are legal, and from the Netherlands, where there is a substantial underground market for illicit goods, drugs anbd guns accessed by Scottish gangsters.

The NCA was clear that the conference was taking place north of the border because of Police Scotland’s pioneering work building intelligence contacts across Europe.

Ms Southern said: “We recognise that a crucial aspect of addressing serious violence in the UK is to trace supply routes for the illegal firearms that fuel it and work with European partners to shut them down.”

Mr Johnson said the representative one country at the conference had said they were usually proud of their exports, but not this one. Moves to tighten gun laws in parts of Europe continue.