Police confiscated a taxi driver's guns when he allegedly threatened to shoot himself three years ago but then gave his weapons back after assessing him as fit to continue to hold them.
Concerns over the mental state of Michael Atherton, who shot dead three women on New Year's Day, surfaced in 2008 just four months after he had applied for a certificate allowing him to hold powerful weapons in addition to the shotguns he already owned.
Atherton was legally entitled to keep six guns at his home in Horden, Co Durham, when he opened fire following a family argument, killing his long-time partner and two female relatives. The 42-year-old then turned the gun on himself.
It was confirmed yesterday that the weapon used to kill Susan McGoldrick (47), her sister Alison Turnbull (44), and her niece Tanya Turnbull (24) was a legitimately registered shotgun.
A fourth woman, Ms McGoldrick's daughter Laura McGoldrick (19), escaped with minor wounds after jumping from an upstairs window during the shooting rampage.
Durham Constabulary said officers acted in accordance with national guidelines by allowing the minicab driver to have his weapons back in November 2008 — just a few weeks after they confiscated them as a precaution.
Police were alerted to an alleged threat of self-harm by a member of the family after a domestic row the previous month.
It is not known whether that family member was among the victims. But Atherton denied making the threat and successfully applied to have the guns returned.
The decision was signed off by a high-ranking police superintendent.
A police spokesman said the incident boiled down to “one word against another”. The matter has been referred to the Independent Police Complaints Commission.
Owners of shotguns and rifles in Britain must undergo background checks which are supposed to ensure they pose no threat to public safety. People applying for permission to keep a gun must declare any criminal records and relevant medical conditions, including depression or mental illness. Police forces have powers to revoke firearms licences.