POLICE are today investigating why killer Michael Atherton shot dead three members of a family before turning the gun on himself.
An inquiry is being launched as questions are asked over how a man who threatened to harm himself could access firearms.
In a horrific New Year’s Day rampage, Atherton, 42, shot dead his 47-year-old partner Susan McGoldrick, her sister Alison Turnbull, 44, and her niece Tanya Turnbull, 24, before killing himself.
He launched the brief but brutal shooting spree not long after the family returned home from a pub meal to their semi-detached home in Greenside Avenue, Horden.
Taxi driver Atherton, who was found dead next to a long-barrelled weapon, held licences for six guns – three shotguns and three section one firearms.
Although police have discovered guns at the property, it’s not yet known whether the weapon used to massacre the three women was licensed.
The matter has been voluntary referred to the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) by Durham Police, as the force had previous contact with the family.
Atherton, who was believed to have been suffering from depression, was known to police after threatening to harm himself in 2008.
Durham Police assistant chief constable Michael Banks told a news conference yesterday that a resident at the address was the “lawful holder” of shotgun and firearms licences.
The revelation is likely to spark renewed debate over whether to further tighten Britain’s gun licensing laws.
Mr Banks added: “This is a tragic event that we have here. We have four people who died. Out thoughts and sympathies are with their family and friends.
“We would like to reassure the community that police are in control of the incident. At the minute, we are not looking for anyone else and there a number of officers dealing with the investigation.”
Police said a number of 999 calls were made on the night.
There is no indication of any prolonged disturbance and it’s thought the shots were fired within seconds of each other.
A number of people were in the house at the time and it is believed friends and family had gathered there after a night out.
A man was arrested at the scene after firearms officers arrived, but he was later released.
He is now being treated as a major witness.
Detective Superintendent Paul Goundry, the senior investigating officer, said: “The four bodies were in close proximity to each other.
“We are still trying to establish what’s happened.”
Post-mortem examinations were being carried out last night, and police hoped to release more details today.
Superintendent Ivan Wood said: “This is obviously a very tragic incident for the family and also for neighbours.
“It’s a close-knit community, it’s a settled community.
“We want to reassure people that there is no danger to anybody else.”