Peterlee Shootings Spark Gun Law Debate

3 January 2012, 12:37 | Updated: 30 March 2016, 13:50

An investigation's being launched into how a man who shot dead his partner and two other women before turning the gun on himself in Horden, near Peterlee, was allowed to hold licences for shotguns and other firearms.

Owners of shotguns and rifles must undergo background checks which are supposed to ensure they pose no threat to public safety.

People applying for permission to keep a gun must declare any criminal records and relevant medical conditions, including any previous treatment for depression or mental illness.

Police forces have powers to revoke firearms licences if officers receive information about new convictions or changes in the certificate-holder's mental health.

But a series of horrifying mass shootings over the years - in particular in Hungerford in August 1987, Dunblane in March 1996 and Cumbria in June 2010 - have raised questions about whether enough is done to stop guns legally ending up in the hands of dangerously unstable people.

Taxi driver Michael Atherton - who shot dead his partner and two other women before killing himself in Horden on Sunday - had licences for three shotguns and three ``Section One'' firearms such as rifles.

Both types of certification are reviewed every five years, although fewer than 1% of applications to renew a shotgun licence were rejected in 2009-10.

Home Office figures for England and Wales show there were 141,775 certificates on issue for Section One firearms and 580,653 for shotguns at the end of March 2010.

Police revoked 302 firearms licences and 1,076 shotgun licences in 2009-10.

In December 2010, the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee described legislation in England and Wales as a ``complex and confused'' mess and called for tighter restrictions on gun licences.

The MPs called for criminals who receive suspended jail terms - like taxi driver Derrick Bird, who killed 12 people in the 2010 Cumbria shooting spree - to be stripped of firearms licences.

Should The Law Be Changed?
Shooting organisations stress that the UK's gun laws are already extremely tough and have warned against a ``knee-jerk'' reaction to the latest tragedy.

Capital's reporter Anna Harding's been speaking to Simon Clarke from the British Association for Shooting and Conservation (BASC)

Horden Shootings - British Association for Shooting and Conservation by Anna Harding

What The Politicians Say
Grahame Morris, the Labour MP whose Easington constituency includes Horden, said Parliament must reconsider gun laws following the tragedy.

Speaking outside the police cordon, he said questions remained about whether Atherton should have had his shotgun licence revoked after an incident in 2008 when "concerns were raised about his mental health''.

Another issue was whether he was "a fit person to have firearms in a domestic situation''.

Mr Morris said: 
"There are issues for Parliament and Government to look at. We need to take a measured approach. I don't want to put any unfair criticism on the police. I think in the circumstances they have done a really good job in allaying public concerns.

However, there are issues about whether we need to have some professional input and assessment where concerns are expressed about a person's mental health, and whether someone suffering from depression should have, as a matter of course, their shotgun or firearms licence revoked.

There are no easy answers. I know many hundreds of thousands of people enjoy quite legitimately countryside pursuits although I am not a shooter myself.''

Prime Minister David Cameron's official spokesman said the Government had no plans to revisit UK gun laws which were "amongst the toughest in the world''.

The spokesperson went on to say:
"We are trying to balance the need to protect public safety with the need to make sure those controls are practical and work, on this specific case we need to wait for the investigation to conclude.''

Incident Referred To The Independent Police Complaints Commission
The matter's been voluntarily referred to the Independent Police Complaints Commission by Durham Police, as the force had previous contact with the family. 

A spokeswoman for Durham Police said: 
"Police are continuing to try and establish the exact circumstances of what took place and are speaking to family, friends and associates of those who died. However, we can confirm that police currently believe Mr Atherton shot the three women before turning the weapon on himself. The exact weapon used has still not been established and will also form part of continuing inquiries.''

Police believe family members had been out at a pub or for a meal before returning to the house where the incident took place. Senior investigating officer Detective Superintendent Paul Goundry said there had been other people in the house who were now being interviewed.

According to reports, Mrs McGoldrick's brother, Bobby Hardman, said the family was "numb from head to toe'', adding: "We've lost three family members in one swoop and that's all I can say really.''

Family friend Steve Patterson reportedly said Atherton's brother, Chris, had told him before the shootings that his brother had been suffering from depression. Mr Patterson was quoted in reports as saying: "He said he was fed up with the way his life was going. I think he started feeling down after an operation he had on his heart.''