Police confiscated a taxi driver's guns when he allegedly threatened to shoot himself three years ago but then gave his weapons back after assessing him as fit to continue to hold them.
Concerns over the mental state of Michael Atherton, who shot dead three women on New Year's Day, surfaced in 2008 just four months after he had applied for a certificate allowing him to hold powerful weapons in addition to the shotguns he already owned.
Atherton was legally entitled to keep six guns at his home in Horden, Co Durham when he opened fire following a family argument, killing his long-time partner and two female relatives. The 42-year-old then turned the gun on himself.
It was confirmed yesterday that the weapon used to kill Susan McGoldrick, 47, her sister Alison Turnbull, 44, and her niece Tanya Turnbull, 24, was a legitimately registered shotgun.
A fourth woman, Ms McGoldrick's daughter Laura McGoldrick, 19, escaped with minor wounds after jumping from an upstairs window during the shooting rampage.
Durham Constabulary said yesterday that officers acted in accordance with national guidelines by allowing the minicab driver to have his weapons back in November 2008 — just a few weeks after they confiscated them as a precaution.
Police were alerted to an alleged threat of self harm by a member of the family following a domestic argument the previous month. It is not known whether that family member was among the victims. However, Atherton denied making the threat and then successfully applied to have the weapons returned. The decision was signed off by a high-ranking police superintendent. A police spokesman said the incident boiled down to "one word against another".
He added: "If there was no grounds for applying for the revocation of a firearms licence the guns would be returned to the firearms licence holder." The matter has now been referred to the Independent Police Complaints Commission.
The shootings have echoes of recent tragedies in the north of England and have reignited debate over the question of gun control.
Taxi driver Derrick Bird killed 12 people in Cumbria in 2010 while Raoul Moat shot three people, one fatally, in Northumberland in the same year. Both men then killed themselves.
It emerged that Atherton had been granted a five-year shotgun certificate in February 2007. He received a second certificate – a more restrictive "section one" licence which can cover rifles – in May 2008.
At the time of his death the former gun club member held three shotguns and three higher category weapons.
The bodies of the victims were found in close proximity to each other on the ground floor of the semi-detached house, on a quiet cul-de-sac in the former mining community.
A post mortem examination confirmed that all had suffered gunshot wounds.
Senior investigating officer Det Supt Paul Goundry said Atherton had been out drinking in the town on New Year's Day while Ms McGoldrick was with friends including the other two victims.
"We believe Mr Atherton and Susan returned to their home separately and shortly afterwards an argument took place. Mr Atherton produced a shotgun and in a matter of moments shot dead Susan, Tanya and Alison before turning the gun on himself," he said.
MPs call for stricter checks on firearms owners
The Government faced demands last night for an overhaul of Britain's gun controls following the New Year's Day killings.
MPs called for extra medical checks to prevent unstable people being allowed to possess firearms and for partners to be consulted over whether licences should be issued. They also condemned the Home Office for failing to review the "incoherent" rules on gun ownership, which include 44 separate pieces of legislation.
David Cameron ruled out a "knee-jerk" reaction 18 months ago to Derrick Bird's killing spree in west Cumbria when he shot 12 people dead before turning his gun on himself. And Downing Street yesterday insisted there was no plan to look afresh at firearms legislation.
The Prime Minister's spokesman said Britain had some of the toughest firearms laws in the world. He added: "The purpose of that legislation is to protect public safety and, at the same time, ensure controls are practical and proportionate."
The Commons Home Affairs Select Committee called more than a year ago for changes to gun laws. It took the Home Office nine months to reply – and then only to offer general comments.