'Systemic shortcomings' by police allowed gunman with history of domestic abuse to shoot dead three female members of his family

Coroner demands gun licensing overhaul over killer Michael Atherton, who legally owned six weapons

Urgent calls for a fundamental overhaul of Britain’s firearms laws were sounded after a series of “systemic shortcomings” by a police force allowed a gunman with a history of domestic abuse to shoot dead three female members of his family.

Coroner Andrew Tweddle said he was writing to the Home Secretary to call for “root and branch” reform of the laws governing the licensing of weapons following the inquest of a taxi driver who murdered his partner, her sister and niece before killing himself on New Year’s Day 2012.

Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper echoed the demands urging Theresa May to act to prevent men with a history of domestic violence from holding guns.

A separate investigation by the Independent Police Complaints Commission accused Durham Constabulary of demonstrating a “reprehensible lack of intrusive inquiries” in events leading up to the rampage.

Michael Atherton had a history of heavy drinking and domestic abuse but had had his weapons returned to him in September 2008 just weeks after they were confiscated following threats to “blow his head off”.

IPCC commissioner Nicholas Long said the inquiry had identified a series of blunders and poor practice including “woeful record keeping” in the force’s handling of the case.

“It is beyond doubt that Durham Constabulary missed valuable opportunities to assess his suitability to be granted a licence and remain a gun owner,” he said.

Returning a verdict of unlawful killing and suicide Mr Tweddle said it was fortuitous that there were not more tragedies of the sort which occurred in the former mining village of Horden near Peterlee in County Durham. 

Atherton, 42, legally owned six weapons including three shotguns.  He used one of the shotguns to kill his partner, Susan McGoldrick, 47, her sister, Alison Turnbull, 44, and Ms Turnbull's daughter, Tanya, 24, following a drunken row. Ms McGoldrick’s daughter and her boyfriend managed to escape after climbing out of the window of the family home.

The coroner said there had been systematic shortcomings leading up the tragedy. He said Durham police gave ”undue significance“ to the possibility of losing an appeal if they revoked or refused a licence.

”In my opinion, the issues revealed by my inquiries into these deaths have made it absolutely clear and beyond doubt that a root and branch review of policy, guidance and procedures and indeed possibly legislation too, to ensure... that the protection of the public is paramount,“ he said.

Speaking outside the hearing one of the dead woman’s sons, Bobby Turnbull, said the inquest exposed serious flaws in the way applications for shotguns and firearms were managed by Durham Constabulary Firearms Licensing Unit.

“This includes lack of training if any at all, lack of process, lack of accountability, poor leadership and poor communication structure. The family have had a very emotional and upsetting week but we will continue with our commitment to improvements to public safety, to ensure no other family have to endure what we have gone through and will go through for the rest of our lives,” he said.

The inquest heard that there was no formal training for police officers involved in granting firearms licences.

A note attached to Atherton's first application for a firearms licence in 2006 said: ”Four domestics, last one 24/4/04, was cautioned for assault. Still resides with partner and son and daughter. “Would like to refuse, have we sufficient to refuse re public safety?” However Mr Atherton was granted a shotgun licence and then a firearms licence two years later.

Ms Cooper said police forces should not wait until conviction to remove weapons from violent men. 

“Men with a history of domestic violence should not be allowed to own guns. The guidance on domestic violence in the gun licensing framework is far too weak and much stronger action is needed,” she said.

“No-one should die in circumstances like this. To protect women's safety, gun licence rules should be changed now,” she added.

Durham Police chief constable Michael Barton apologised to the families.

The shooting came 18 months after another taxi driver Derrick bird went on a 45 mile rampage in Cumbria shooting dead 12 people before committing suicide. Britain is widely considered to have some of the toughest gun laws in the world following mass shootings at Hungerford in 1987 and Dunblane in 1996.

The system of licensing – which requires separate certificates for shotguns and other weapons – is administered by individual police forces.

The British Association for Shooting and Conservation, said “clear opportunities” to prevent the tragedy were missed.

In a statement it said:  “After this tragedy we have to ask ourselves if 43 different police forces operating different systems with no common training or standards and varying interpretations of government guidance is the right way to protect public safety and ensure efficient licensing.”

GUN LAWS

Britain is widely considered to have some of the toughest gun laws in the world following mass shootings at Hungerford in 1987 and Dunblane in 1996. The system of licensing – which requires separate certificates for shotguns and other weapons – is administered by individual police forces.

USA: The right to bear arms is enshrined in the Second Amendment of the United States Constitution. The Federal Assault Weapons Ban outlawing certain types of semi-automatic weapons expired in 2004. President Obama is seeking stricter gun laws in the face of the Newtown massacre last year.

Germans must be aged over18 before they can buy a gun while more powerful firearms are restricted to those aged 21 and above. Any purchase requires a firearms licence for which applicants must undergo a series of background and psychological checks.

Finland toughened its gun laws in 2011 after young gunmen killed 20 people in shooting sprees over the previous four years. Applicants for a handgun license must be at least 20 years old and prove active involvement in shooting as a sport or for hunting. Every five year license holders must prove they remain actively involved in shooting as a hobby.

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