Police Scotland said it was reviewing the deployment of armed officers after listening to concerns from politicians and members of the public.
The force was facing mounting criticismover a “standing authority” which allowed a small number of officers to carry guns while on routine patrol.
Opponents objected to armed officers being sent to deal with low-level disturbances.
Previously, police had to collect weapons from a locked safe in an Armed Response Vehicle (ARV) under the authorisation of a senior officer.
While approving the recommendation of a police monitoring group that the standing authority should remain in place, chief constable Sir Stephen House yesterday announced that officers attached to ARVs would now only be dispatched to the most serious of incidents.
Both the Scottish Police Authority (SPA) and Her Majesty’s Inspector of Constabulary in Scotland are currently carrying out reviews of the controversial policy on armed officers.
The original decision, taken by the chief constable when the new single police force came into being last year, went largely unnoticed until an incident in Inverness. After armed officers were photographed responding to a minor altercation at a McDonald’s in the city, there was a public outcry.
The force’s armed policing monitoring group recommended keeping the standing authority in place after it was given intelligence on serious organised crime groups and the number of firearms deployments between April and August.
Deputy Chief Constable Iain Livingstone said: “Protecting the public and ensuring that all communities have the same access to specialist policing support, no matter where or when they need it, is at the heart of this decision.
“We have balanced our overriding duty to keep people safe with consideration of the views expressed about the perception of armed officers supporting local policing activities.
“Having a small number of armed police officers available means we can retain our operational flexibility and ensure that more than 98 per cent of our officers remain unarmed, but we remain best placed to support the public when the need arises.”
He added: “The threat of firearms and other serious criminality does not discriminate between the city or the town and the rural community, or indeed the Highlands and the Borders. Just last week, our armed officers were deployed to a number of high-profile incidents that occurred in ten out of our 14 local policing divisions, including those believed to be the most remote and the safest.”
Police Scotland said a working group had been set up to look at holsters for guns and Tasers, plus the deployment of armed officers to incidents that do not involve firearms. The group is expected to report in January.
The SPA was criticised earlier this year when it emerged the watchdog had not been consulted on the decision to grant the firearms standing authority. Justice secretary Kenny MacAskill was notified, but has repeatedly said the issue is an “operational matter” for the police.
Last night, Scottish Labour’s justice spokesman Graeme Pearson MSP said: “I welcome the change of heart reflected in Police Scotland’s announcement and I know that local communities across Scotland will be pleased at the review.
“Policing by consent is vital to the service across the country and it’s therefore a pity the Scottish Police Authority failed in their responsibilities to hold the chief constable to account.
“Transparency and accountability are essential for decisions taken by the SPA, yet we have failed to see that when it comes to armed police. The Scottish Government and Mr MacAskill still have questions to answer as a result of standing by for more than a year, impotent.”
Liberal Democrat justice spokeswoman Alison McInnes said: “We have always been clear that there is a correct time and place for armed response vehicle officers. It is not reasonable nor proportionate for those officers to undertake routine duties in supermarkets, high streets or on people’s doorsteps.
“The justice secretary’s inaction has shown how out of step the SNP is when it comes to protecting civil liberties.”
Speaking at a press conference in Inverness yesterday, Assistant Chief Constable Bernard Higgins, who has overall strategic responsibility for firearms, said it was a “popular misconception” that officers could obtain firearms from the boot of a police car within 60 seconds like “in Hollywood”. Realistically, the process could take up to ten minutes, he said.
Mr MacAskill said: “Armed police are a long-standing feature of policing in Scotland. However, it is for the chief constable to make operational decisions about where and when to deploy these resources.
“The Scottish Government welcomes the findings of the quarterly review of the standing firearms authority, which Police Scotland believes balances public safety while taking into account the views of local communities across Scotland.
“Ministers have noted the commitment to deploy armed officers only to firearms incidents or cases where there is a threat to life.”
Mr MacAskill said 42 of the 43 police forces in England and Wales had similar standing firearm authorities.
Call for police whistleblower hotline
A WHISTLEBLOWERS’ hotline should be set up for officers to report problems with Police Scotland, it has been claimed.
Tory justice spokeswoman Margaret Mitchell said the Scottish Government should consider establishing a similar phoneline to the one set up for the NHS last year.
In a letter to justice secretary Kenny MacAskill, Ms Mitchell said the system would help identify problems earlier, such as concerns some officers had about staffing arrangements for the Commonwealth Games.
“Since the merger to form Police Scotland, it’s all the more important staff have somewhere to take their concerns where they’ll be treated seriously and anonymously,’’ she said.
“We’ve all heard complaints about the environment some police officers had to work in during Glasgow 2014.
“Perhaps if such a hotline was in place, these issues could have been knocked on the head almost immediately.”