A CORONER today (Friday, March 8) called for a "root and branch" review of British gun licensing after describing the deaths of three women shot dead in County Durham as "avoidable".

An inquest heard that Durham Constabulary missed repeated opportunities to disarm violent Michael Atherton, who murdered three members of his family before turning the gun on himself.

The 42-year-old taxi driver killed his partner, Susan McGoldrick, 47, her sister, Alison Turnbull, 44, and Ms Turnbull's daughter, Tanya, 24, in Horden, near Peterlee, County Durham, on New Year's Day 2012.

The hearing has been told that despite having a history of domestic abuse and threats to self-harm, Atherton legally owned six weapons, including three shotguns.

In his judgment, Coroner Andrew Tweddle said: "In my opinion, these deaths were avoidable.

"The systemic shortcomings highlighted by me today lead me to conclude that, on a balance of probabilities, the four deceased would not have died when they did in the manner in which they did had there been robust, clear and accountable procedures in place."

The coroner accepted that no-one in the Firearms Licensing Unit was guilty of acting in bad faith, but said "the system in place at that time was not fit for purpose so that the decision-making process was flawed".

Giving evidence today, Durham Police Chief Constable Mike Barton said 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, who offered an apology to the bereaved families, said he was "appalled" by the officers' conduct, but conceded it was an opportunity lost.

Reaching a verdict that the women were unlawfully killed and that Atherton killed himself, Mr Tweddle said it was "fortuitous" there had not been more incidents like it.

Outside the hearing, Bobby Turnbull, Alison's son and Tanya's brother, said: "We consider the inquest has exposed some 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."

Independent Police Complaints Commissioner Nicholas Long said: "It is beyond doubt that Durham Constabulary missed valuable opportunities to assess his suitability to be granted a licence and remain a gun owner.

"Not only did the IPCC investigation uncover a reprehensible lack of intrusive inquiries by Durham Constabulary it also identified poor practices which reflect woeful record keeping.”

The inquest heard that 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. Weeks later they were returned to him, with a final written warning.

Mr Tweddle said, he will write to the Home Office calling for "root and branch" changes and possibly legislation about how police licence shotguns.

Durham Police and Crime Commissioner Ron Hogg said: “At critical stages in the various granting and review procedures, there was a lack of rigour in the investigative process along with an overly cautious approach to decision making. I find aspects of this difficult to understand.

“What is also clear is that the police alone cannot effectively manage the process of firearms licensing and there is a need for information to be shared amongst all agencies.

“Indeed, this is a key aspect of the national campaign being led by Bobby Turnbull and I shall continue to support him in this.”