A CORONER has called for “root and branch” changes to gun licensing after concluding three women were unlawfully killed before the gunman turned his weapon on himself.
Andrew Tweddle has said the deaths of Alison Turnbull, 44, her daughter Tanya, 24, and sister Susan McGoldrick, 47, at the house in Greenside Avenue, Horden, on New Year’s Day last year were avoidable.
Cabbie Michael Atherton, 42, used his shotgun to kill himself after firing at the women, with a spray of pellets hitting Susan’s daughter Laura before she escaped through an upstairs window.
At the close of the five-day hearing, Mr Tweddle said: “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”.
He said staff gave “undue significance” to the possibility of losing an appeal if they revoked or refused a licence and stated the force has since carried out a review.
He added: “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, to ensure... that the protection of the public is paramount.”
The inquest heard Atherton, despite a history of domestic abuse and threats to self-harm, legally owned six weapons, including three shotguns and that there was no formal training for police officers involved in granting firearms licences.
A note attached to his first application for a firearms licence in 2006 referred to four domestic disturbances and proposed refusal, but queried whether there were sufficient reasons.
Atherton was 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 they were returned, with a final warning telling him to behave.
Outside the hearing, Bobby Turnbull, Alison’s son and Tanya’s brother, who has campaigned for a change in the law since the massacre, agreed there had been flaws in the police system and added: “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.”
Atherton’s father Peter released a statement which offered condolences to the women’s loved ones and said his family still have no idea why his son took such action.
Chief Constable Michael Barton also apologised to the bereaved families, while deputy Michael Banks said if the force was presented with the facts today, the licence would not have been granted.
The Independent Police Complaints Commission has concluded police missed opportunities to assess Atherton’s suitability to remain in possession of his firearms and shotguns.
Durham’s Police and Crime Commissioner Ron Hogg said he supported Mr Turnbull’s campaign and would see all 13 recommendations made in the wake of the deaths were put in place.