In the Media

Michael Atherton's dreadful acts can't be blamed on firearm laws | Laura Saunsbury

PUBLISHED January 4, 2012

Those hellbent on violence can as easily use a knife, or illegal weapon. Further restricting gun ownership won't prevent tragedy

On the evening of New Year's Day, Michael Atherton, a licensed gun owner, shot and killed his partner and two other members of her family before taking his own life. It is entirely understandable that in the aftermath of these terrible events in Horden, County Durham, questions will be asked about whether the tragedy could have been prevented if we had more rigorous controls on the private possession of firearms.

These concerns are no doubt heightened by the news that emerged on Tuesday that in 2008 Atherton, who was in authorised possession of six firearms, had his weapons seized from him by the police but later restored, following allegations that he had threatened to kill himself in the course of a domestic argument.

Sadly, I fear this tragedy could not have been prevented. As shown by other news reports over the past week, similar crimes have been perpetrated by people who have used a knife to much the same effect. This demonstrates it is the person wielding the weapon, and not the weapon itself which is the problem. Had Atherton not had ready access to firearms, he might still have gone on to commit these dreadful acts.

We already have in Britain firearm laws that are among the strictest in the world. The law as it stands gives the police more than adequate powers to investigate the character, background and mental state of certificate holders. To obtain a firearm or shotgun certificate any applicant must complete an application form, disclosing any previous criminal record, relevant medical history and the contact details of their GP. The application must also be endorsed by two referees who the police will contact as part of their enquiries.

The application process is not merely a paper exercise but involves a firearms inquiry officer visiting the applicant's home, first to inspect their security arrangements, and second to interview the applicant, and, if deemed necessary, his or her partner. Questions will be asked about the applicant's personal history, including work and family circumstances, any previous criminal record, medical problems and why he or she wants to own one or more firearms. If the police have any concerns about the applicant's mental stability they should, and in my experience generally always do, contact the applicant's GP to request a medical report. Unless the police are entirely satisfied by the doctor's reply, they will err on the side of caution and refuse to grant the application.

Firearms and shotgun certificates are granted for a period of five years and the same process is undertaken when a certificate holder applies for renewal of their certificate. That said, the police can, and often do, conduct a review at any stage of a certificate holder's suitability to be entrusted with firearms if concerns are brought to their attention, for example as a result of the individual having been arrested or the police being called to their home due to a neighbour dispute or domestic argument, as was apparently the case with Atherton.

I have seen some reports suggesting that he had been suffering from depression for a number of years. While we will obviously have to await the outcome of the independent inquiry, it is perhaps telling that County Durham police have referred themselves to the Independent Police Complaints Commission. Rather than this being a case of the firearm laws not being fit for purpose, it would appear this may have been an instance where the law was not properly applied.

No matter how carefully the authorities try to regulate access to and the ownership of guns or other potentially dangerous items, sadly there will always be one or two individuals who feel pushed beyond the brink of reason into taking innocent lives. Such cases are extremely rare and cannot be legislated for or prevented, even if there were a blanket ban on guns. It has been and always will be the case that those who are hellbent on violence can far more easily obtain a knife, or indeed an illegal gun on the black market, than acquiring a firearm legitimately by applying for a shotgun certificate or firearms certificate.

Ultimately, society must ask itself if any tangible benefit could actually be gained by further restricting the private ownership of firearms in Britain. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds