Newspaper article The Journal (Newcastle, England)

Police Gun Unit Flawed, Says Coroner; .FIREARMS LICENSING LAWS Deaths 'Should Have Been Avoided'

Newspaper article The Journal (Newcastle, England)

Police Gun Unit Flawed, Says Coroner; .FIREARMS LICENSING LAWS Deaths 'Should Have Been Avoided'

Article excerpt

Byline: Katie Davies ? 0191 201 6346 ? katie.davies@ncjmedia.co.uk

FOUR people killed in a gun massacre would have still been alive today if more "robust, clear and accountable procedures" were in place at a police force's gun licensing unit, a coroner has said.

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Chief constable Michael Barton apologised to the families of the victims of the New Year's Day shootings in Horden, County Durham, during an inquest into their deaths.

Taxi driver Michael Atherton, 42, shot dead his partner Susan McGoldrick, 47, Alison Turnbull, 44, and Tanya Turnbull, 24, before shooting himself in the head.

Coroner Andrew Tweddle said he was surprised there had not been more incidents like the one in Horden because of the current "flawed" gun licensing system.

During the hearing he said: "In my opinion, these deaths were avoidable.

"The systemic shortcomings highlighted by me 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."

Following this week's inquest Mr Tweddle reached a verdict that the women were unlawfully killed and that Atherton killed himself.

Despite a history of domestic violence and threats to "shoot his head off", Atherton legally owned six weapons, including three shotguns.

His weapons were confiscated in 2008 when he threatened to harm himself but were later returned with a final written warning letter.

Mr Tweddle 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".

Mr Barton, speaking at the inquest at Crook Civic Centre, apologised to the families on behalf of the police force. He said: "I apologise on behalf of the organisation that your family and friends have been put through what nobody would want to go through."

He admitted 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 scrutiny 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.

However, 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.

The four-day hearing highlighted that there was no formal training for police officers involved in granting firearms licences.

Issues were raised around poor keeping of records, a lack of training, a reluctance to seek legal advice or inquire deeper into applicants.

Following the shootings the force have now made changes to their firearms licensing procedures, including doing "spot-checks" on licence holders.

However, Mr Tweddle said shotgun and firearms licensing was being considered by the Government.

"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, is needed to ensure that the protection of the public is paramount," he said.

He will now write to the Home Office calling for changes and possibly legislation surrounding how police license shotguns.

Police and crime commissioner Ron Hogg said that the inquest indicated that at critical stages in the granting and review procedures there was a lack of rigour in the investigative process.

He added: "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. …

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