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Coroner to write to Home Office over gun licensing
12:04pm Friday 8th March 2013 in News
A CORONER has called for "root and branch" changes to gun licensing at the conclusion of an inquest into a taxi driver who shot dead three members of his family before killing himself.
Andrew Tweddle said that with the current "flawed" system it was "fortuitous" there had not been more incidents like the one in Horden, near Peterlee, County Durham, on New Year's Day 2012.
Michael Atherton, 42, killed his partner, Susan McGoldrick, 47, her sister, Alison Turnbull, 44, and Ms Turnbull's daughter, Tanya, 24, before turning the gun on himself.
Mr Tweddle, sitting in Crook, reached a verdict that the women were unlawfully killed and that Atherton killed himself.
The inquest heard that Atherton, despite a history of domestic abuse and threats to self-harm, legally owned six weapons, including three shotguns.
The inquest also 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?"
Atherton was nevertheless granted a shotgun licence and then a firearms licence two years later.
His weapons were confiscated after he threatened to "blow his head off" in September 2008.
But weeks later the guns were returned to him, with a final written warning telling him to behave responsibly.
Mr Tweddle said Durham Police had conducted a thorough review of its firearms licensing practices since the tragedy.
He said it highlighted that many other licences had been issued to "improper" people.
"The review undertaken by Durham Police has revealed an enormous number of unsatisfactory decisions having been made and it is fortuitous that, significant as this incident has been, there has not been more," he said.
He will write to the Home Office calling for "root and branch" changes and possibly legislation to how police license shotguns.
Durham Police chief constable Michael Barton offered an apology to the bereaved families.
Giving evidence at the hearing, he said prior to the shootings the Firearms Licensing Unit was too focused on administration and not enough on investigating whether applicants should be granted licences.
The unit had come under investigation in 2008 and 2009 when PC Damien Cobain and a colleague were found to be selling on shotguns that had been handed in by the public.
Mr Barton said he was appalled by the officers' conduct - they have now left the force having been convicted - but said that was not linked to issues surrounding Atherton's licences.
But Mr Tweddle said an investigation of their crimes could have also revealed the lack of organisational control in the way licences were granted by the unit.
"Was it an opportunity lost," Mr Tweddle asked.
"Yes, sir," the chief constable replied.