Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper has called for reform of gun licensing after an inquest revealed “systemic shortcomings” in the way Durham Police dealt with applications for firearms and shotgun licences.

The inquest in Durham on Friday (8 March) heard how 42-year-old Michael Atherton shot his partner, her sister and her sister’s daughter on New Year’s Day 2012 before turning the gun on himself.

It emerged that Durham Police had confiscated Mr Atherton’s guns in 2008, but returned them to him soon after, despite his history of domestic abuse.

Officers from the department that made the decision to return Mr Atherton’s licence were subsequently jailed for selling on guns handed over to the police.

Coroner Andrew Tweddle said the system at Durham was “not fit for purpose” and “flawed” and an Independent Police Complaints Commission review uncovered “woeful record keeping” at the force.

Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper has called for changes to “tighten” the law on gun licensing.

But Countryside Alliance director of campaigns Tim Bonner said Ms Cooper has missed the point.

“This was a horrendous crime, but this tragedy was not caused by weak law, it was caused by a complete failure to enforce it. Durham Police says it has improved its systems in the wake of this case, but responsible and law-abiding gun users are horrified that someone with a history like Mr Atherton’s was allowed to retain his licence.

“The law contains ample scope for the removal of licences and Mr Atherton should not have had access to legally held firearms. Knee-jerk talk of “tightening” the law is both irrelevant and concerning in such circumstances.

“British gun users understand that ownership is a responsibility, not a right. They are willing to be judged on their actions but not on those of a flawed licensing process that was not fit for purpose.”

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Revision of gun licensing unnecessary says Countryside Alliance