POLICE had previously warned a taxi driver, who went on to shoot three members of his family before killing himself, that he could lose his licence for owning guns, an inquest has heard.
Officers were concerned about Michael Atherton, 42, of Horden, owning guns because he had a history of domestic violence against his partner Susan McGoldrick, and he had threatened to blow his own head off during a drunken dispute.
However, Durham Police did not permanently take his guns off him or revoke his shotgun licence and he went on to kill 47-year-old Mrs McGoldrick, her sister Alison Turnbull, 44, and Alison’s daughter Tanya Turnbull, 24, on New Year’s Day 2012.
Officers did take away his legally-held guns after he threatened to shoot himself in September 2008, the inquest at Crook Civic Centre heard.
The original decision to grant him a licence was “borderline”, the coroner was told.
Retired Chief Superintendent Ian MacDonald, in charge of firearms licensing, told the hearing Atherton had got involved in a family row and threatened to “blow his head off”.
When armed officers arrived at the house, Atherton was alone in his bedroom and unarmed.
He was arrested for a breach of the peace. The next day, he denied making any comments about shooting himself and was released without charge. His guns were later returned to him.
Mr MacDonald told the hearing he wrote to Atherton in the light of the threat to self harm.
One paragraph in the letter stated “irresponsible, irrational or uncontrollable behaviour” would lead to his licence being revoked.
Coroner Andrew Tweddle asked: “What about domestic violence?
“Would that be irresponsible, irrational or uncontrollable?”
“That was all three of those things, sir,” Mr MacDonald replied.
Earlier, Mr MacDonald’s predecessor, Chief Superintendent Carole Thompson-Young, said Atherton was not refused a firearms licence as legal 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.
“The judge deemed that the person was entitled to have a gun because there had been no guns used in relation to the domestic violence,” she said.
National licensing expert Mark Groothuis, of Hampshire Police, appeared to disagree with that evidence when he 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.”