Britain's 'chaotic and inadequate' gun control regime risks tragedy, report warns

Study calls for overhaul of licensing of UK’s 1.8 million legal firearms

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The chaotic, fractured and inadequate gun control regime covering more than 1.8 million firearms in private hands needs to be overhauled or will result in further massacres, a new report warns.

A damning investigation by the official police inspectorate reveals that some of Britain’s biggest police forces have ignored requests to tighten up their licensing programme despite widespread failures revealed following a triple gun murder nearly four years ago.

Mick North, who's daughter Sophie was killed in the Dunblane shooting, is seen in a graveyard created by Amnesty International outside the Scottish Parliament in 2006. The gravestones signify the number of people lost to small arms around the world every two hours (Getty)

The report, by HM Inspectorate of Constabulary, found that medical checks to weed out unsuitable bus drivers were more rigorous than those aimed at gun owners.

The study also revealed that many owners were holding guns illegally because some forces had failed to properly renew licences that had expired after their five-year terms.

Inspectors found that seven forces had failed to screen their registers for domestic abusers holding gun licences despite a request from a senior officer following the New Year 2012 murders of three women by Michael Atherton using his legally-held gun.

Atherton killed his partner, her sister and her daughter before shooting himself after police returned his confiscated guns with a “stiff warning” following a series of domestic incidents, including one where he threatened to shoot his head off while he was drunk.

Parents from around the world who lost their children to armed violence gather to destroy symbolic guns as part of International Gun Destruction Day in 2004 (Getty)

The killings sparked criticisms of Durham police and led to instructions to all forces to review domestic abuse cases on their books in March 2014. Such reviews resulted in 260 licences being revoked. But more than a year later, inspectors found that major forces including the Metropolitan Police, Greater Manchester Police and Merseyside Police, had failed to carry out any review - potentially allowing domestic abusers to remain in possession of firearms.


“We found that, too often, forces are not following the Home Office guidance that is in place, sometimes inexcusably compromising public safety,” said Stephen Otter, a former chief constable who led the inspection.

“Lessons from past tragedies have not always been learnt and this fails the victims of those events. Unless things change, we run the risk of further tragedies occurring.”

The gun control regime relates to 1.3 million shotguns and more than 500,000 “section 1 firearms” - rifles and other guns - that were not banned under legislation brought in after the 1996 Dunblane massacre.

The number of “section 1 firearms” legally owned in the UK is now at its highest point since records began, increasing by 72.2 percent since 1998.

Britain has some of the strictest rules on gun ownership with owners having to satisfy their local force that they have a good reason to own a weapon and do not pose a threat to public safety. But the report highlighted failures in the regime to enforce and monitor them.

Under the current system, doctors are under no legal obligation to police requests for information about the health of applicants.

In 2012 Michael Atherton killed his partner, her sister and her daughter before shooting himself using his legally-held gun, in Peterlee, Co Durham (Rex)

In one case, an Iraqi war veteran was given a firearms certificate in 2008 despite suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and anger management issues. He did not disclose his issues to the police and his GP did not respond to a standard police request for information. His guns were only taken away after his girlfriend reported his “jealous and controlling” behaviour – just before he assaulted her and he was detained under the Mental Health Act.

The report also found that police had often left gun owners with their weapons even when they were involved in violent behaviour. One man – who used his shotgun to shoot off leaves to prune a tree following a dispute with his local authority – was allowed to keep his gun, and just received a warning from police.

Chief Constable Andy Marsh, the national lead on firearms licensing, said: “The last five years have seen a number of important and significant developments. There’s been a lot of work to improve things, but much needs to be done.”

“England and Wales are among the safest countries in the world when it comes to the risk posed not only by firearms in general but in particular by legally-held firearms, and the gun-owning community here constitutes an overwhelmingly responsible group of almost three-quarters of a million people.”

Case study: Police not informed

Doctors treating Harold Ambrose told him that he should stop driving his car because of his growing dementia – but if they told him that he should hand in his shotgun, they failed to pass on the information to local police. Eighteen months after he was diagnosed with the condition, Mr Ambrose killed his wife, Wendy, with his legally held gun, then turned it on himself. He was 82.

The scene of the shooting in Boxted, Essex

Mr Ambrose had held a shotgun certificate for 27 years before the shootings at his cottage in Essex in May 2014 and had told his doctor. But although he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and his condition was deteriorating, neither the GP nor the local health trust told Essex Police. The report pointed out that they were under no obligation to do so.