Killer’s threats to shoot himself

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KILLER Michael Atherton was warned that any “irresponsible, irrational or uncontrollable behaviour” would lead to him losing his firearms licence before he went on to blast three members of his family and turn the gun on himself.

Officers were concerned about Atherton, 42, 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, an inquest into the deaths heard yesterday.

But Durham Police did not permanently take his guns or revoke his shotgun licence before he went on to kill 47-year-old Mrs McGoldrick, her sister Alison Turnbull, 44, and Alison’s daughter Tanya Turnbull, 24, in Greenside Avenue, Horden, on New Year’s Day last year.

Police did take away his legally-held guns after he threatened to shoot himself in September 2008, while the inquest at Crook Civic Centre heard the original decision to grant him a licence was “borderline”.

Retired Chief Superintendent Ian MacDonald, in charge of firearms licensing, said Atherton became involved in a family row and threatened to “blow his head off”.

His son managed to get the keys to his gun cupboard and when armed officers arrived at the house, Atherton was alone in his bedroom and unarmed.

He was arrested for a breach of the peace and the next day he denied making any comments about shooting himself and was released without charge.

His guns were later returned to him, despite fears over his stability.

The inquest heard one criteria officers were supposed to consider were that licensees should be of a “temperate” nature.

Mr MacDonald told the hearing he wrote to Atherton in the light of the threat to self-harm, warning him about his future conduct.

One paragraph in the letter stated “irresponsible, irrational or uncontrollable behaviour” would lead to a revocation.

Durham Coroner Andrew Tweddle asked: “What about domestic violence? Would that be irresponsible, irrational or uncontrollable?”

Mr MacDonald replied: “That was all three of those things, sir.”

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, said: “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.”

The inquest continues.

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