A CORONER quizzed a retired police chief over his decision to return guns to a man who had threatened to “blow his head off” and later went on to shoot three members of his family.

Former Chief Superintendent Ian MacDonald allowed the legally-held guns to be returned to taxi driver Michael Atherton, with a final warning that any “irresponsible, irrational or uncontrollable behaviour” would lead him to lose his firearms licence.

The 42-year-old went on to kill his partner Susan McGoldrick, 47, her sister Alison Turnbull, 44, and Alison’s daughter, Tanya Turbull, 24, before turning the weapon on himself at his home in Horden, near Peterlee, County Durham, on New Year’s Day last year.

The inquest in Crook was told today (Tuesday, March 5) the decision to grant a licence was a “borderline case”.

Questioning Mr MacDonald, Coroner Andrew Tweddle asked how he could “square” returning the guns after the incident, when public safety was the primary purpose of firearms legislation.

Mr MacDonald said Atherton had denied threatening to kill himself and that every case had to be “considered on its merits” with the information “in front of me”.

Mr Tweddle said: “Surely common sense dictates that you shouldn’t give weapons in borderline cases, let alone in cases where there have been events such as this, without seeking basic clarification of what had happened.”

The hearing was told Atherton had been involved in a family row and threatened to “blow his head off” in September 2008.

His son managed to get the keys to the gun cupboard and when armed officers arrived at the house Atherton was alone in his bedroom and unarmed.

He was arrested for breach of peace and later released with no further action.

Earlier, Mr MacDonald's predecessor, Chief Superintendent Carole Thompson-Young said, Atherton was not refused a firearms licence, as case law advice stated a history of domestic violence alone was not a good enough reason.

She told the hearing about a similar case at a different force where the gun owner won an appeal against having his licence revoked.

But national firearms expert Mark Groothuis, of Hampshire Police, told the inquest: "My Chief Constable has a very robust line on domestic violence.

"With four instances or where there has been a caution, I do not consider from my point of view it would have been a borderline case - it would have been a refusal."

The inquest continues tomorrow.