Labour back new gun laws after Peterlee shooting

Ministers are expected to block plans for new laws preventing people with a history of domestic violence from owning a gun

Bobby Turnbull whose mother, sister and aunt were killed by Michael Atherton
Bobby Turnbull whose mother, sister and aunt were killed by Michael Atherton

Ministers are set to block tough new laws which Labour say would prevent further tragedies like the shotgun murder of three women in the North East.

The proposals from Labour’s front bench follow the murders of Susan McGoldrick, her sister Alison Turnbull and Ms Turnbull’s daughter Tanya, in Horden, near Peterlee, County Durham, on New Year’s Day 2012.

It later emerged that the killer, 42-year-old taxi driver Michael Atherton, who was armed with a shotgun and went on to kill himself, was known to have a history of domestic violence.

Shadow Ministers want the law to be changed so that chief constables have a duty to carry out background checks before a firearms certificate can be issued.

There would then be a presumption that the application is refused if checks uncover a history of domestic violence, mental illness or drug or alcohol abuse.

Labour’s Shadow Crime and Security Minister, Diana Johnson, said the proposal had been prompted by the Atherton case as well as the murders of 12 people in 2010 by Derrick Bird in Cumbria. Bird also went on to kill himself.

Derrick Bird who killed 12 people in Cumbria
 

She said: “Reform of the gun licensing regime is needed and needed now.

“We know that the vast majority of the shooting community are law abiding citizens who are very careful about how they use their weapons. But it is becoming clear that the licensing system is not working as well as it should to serve license holders and protect the public.

“The terrible crimes of Derrick Bird and Michael Atherton show why we need a robust licensing system. Sadly in the last six months nine people have died in incidents involving licensed guns.

“That is why Labour is proposing the biggest change to firearms legislation since the handguns ban in 1998. We want to enshrine in law a clear principle that those with a history of domestic or sexual violence, substance abuse or serious mental health problems should not be allowed a gun. We also want to shift the onus on to the applicant to prove their suitability.”

She said Labour would also increase the cost of a licence - currently £50 for a new application and £40 for a renewal.

“At the same time we want to make the system self-financing in order to give the police the resources they need to carry out proper background checks and provide a better service to the shooting community.

“After a decade without a fee rise, it is now time that the license fee reflects the true cost to the police. It is ridiculous that the annual cost of the firearms license is only a third as much as a fishing license.”

Durham Police/PA Wire Michael Atherton who shot his partner and two other women at his house in Peterlee
Michael Atherton who shot his partner and two other women at his house in Peterlee
 

Inquiries following the County Durham shootings revealed that Durham Police had taken Mr Atherton’s weapons away in 2008 after he threatened to harm himself, but they were then returned.

Proposals to change the law are backed by a number of North East MPs, including Easington MP Grahame Morris and Gateshead MP Ian Mearns.

But they are opposed by Conservative backbenchers, who say that the fault lay with Durham Police and not with existing legislation.

Ministers also say that existing laws are sufficient and there is no need for new ones.

Police Minister Damian Green told the Commons last month: “The police can already take these factors in to consideration when they consider a firearms application . I believe the law is sound in this respect and there is no need to change it.”

He promised that training for police officers issuing firearms licenses would be improved, and said the College of Policing was issuing a new code of conduct.

Labour is attempting to amend the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill, which is currently making its way through the Commons.

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