Coroner calls for ‘root and branch’ reform of gun laws after Keyham tragedy
Britain’s gun laws need “root and branch” reform to protect the public, the Government has been warned, in the wake of the Plymouth mass shootings in which five people were shot dead.
Ian Arrow, the senior coroner for Plymouth, said the 50-year-old Firearms Act was at “odds with public safety and the fundamental principle that owning a gun is a privilege and not a right”.
In just eight minutes, Jake Davison, 22, killed his mother Maxine, 51, and then shot dead three-year-old Sophie Martyn, her father Lee, 43, Stephen Washington, 59, and Kate Shepherd, 66.
He then turned the weapon on himself as he was confronted by an unarmed police officer on August 12 2021 in Keyham, Plymouth.
Last month jurors at a long-running inquest in Exeter ruled each victim was unlawfully killed.
They were critical of the failings within the firearms licensing unit, which handed the apprentice crane operator back his shotgun five weeks before the killings.
The jury also found there was a “serious failure” at a national level by the Government, Home Office and National College of Policing to implement the recommendation from Lord Cullen’s Report in 1996 following the Dunblane killings.
In a series of reports sent to Home Secretary Suella Braverman, Home Office minister Chris Philp, the National Police Chiefs’ Council, all chief constables in England and Wales, the College of Policing and Lord Burnett, the Lord Chief Justice, Mr Arrow raised a series of concerns around the Firearms Act, Home Office guidance provided to police forces applying the Firearms Act legislation, the training offered to police staff assessing licence applications and training given to judges hearing licence appeals.
Mr Arrow called for the legislative distinction between Section 1 firearms – such as rifles – and shotguns to be ended.
“I am concerned the public would be better protected if the legislation provided that a certificate ‘shall not be granted’ unless the applicant has satisfied the relevant chief officer of police that they are safe to hold a gun of any type,” he wrote.
“I am concerned that whilst the criteria for issuing shotgun licences remain less stringent than those for holding Section 1 firearms, a misleading impression of potential fatality of each type of weapon will continue to affect the perception of and attitude to risk amongst police firearms and explosive licensing units and public safety will be compromised.”
Mr Arrow said that “numerous recommendations” arising from previous tragedies and reviews had highlighted a lack of nationally recognised training for police staff involved in firearms licensing decisions and there was an “urgent need” for it.
“If any lessons had been learned in the aftermath of earlier tragedies, they have been forgotten and that learning had been lost,” he wrote.
“Over the past 27 years, there has been an abject failure to ensure that nationally accredited training of firearms licensing staff has been developed and its currency maintained.
“I am concerned to ensure that the momentum to effect change after the horrific tragedy in Keyham should not be lost, as it has been in respect of lessons and recommendations over the past 27 years.”
Mr Arrow also suggested all chief constables consider reviewing all certificates seized, refused, revoked or surrendered and subsequently approved over the past five years.
Davison legally held a shotgun certificate and weapon having been obsessed with firearms from a young age due to a trait in autism of developing a “special interest”.
He applied for a shotgun certificate in July 2017 aged 18, saying he wanted to go clay pigeon shooting with his uncle.
As part of the application process, Davison had declared his autism and Asperger’s – but when police sought relevant information from his GP, the doctor declined to provide any as it was not mandatory.
The police granted the application in January 2018 to last five years.
Later that year, he bought a black Weatherby pump-action shotgun which he kept at home in Biddick Drive.
Police were already aware Davison had a history of violence and knew that aged 12 he had assaulted two teachers and aged 13 had punched a pupil at the special school he attended.
Aged 17 he was involved in a domestic verbal argument with his father Mark and was also suspected of an assault outside a Tesco store in 2016.
In September 2020, Davison was captured on CCTV punching a 16-year-old boy up to nine times in a skate park and slapping his 15-year-old female friend after another boy called him a “fat c***”.
Detectives did not know he was a firearms holder and put him on the deferred charge Pathfinder scheme instead of prosecution.
It was only two months later that a concerned Pathfinder worker alerted police and the shotgun and certificate were seized.
But just five weeks before the killings, they were handed back to Davison.
Devon and Cornwall Police have invested £4 million in the firearms licensing unit since the tragedy, with 100 staff handling the highest number of gun licence applications of any force in England and Wales.
Luke Pollard, Labour MP for Plymouth Sutton and Devonport, welcomed the coroner’s report.
“It shows that Plymouth was failed, tragically, by gun laws and licencing systems that were not fit for purpose,” he said.
“I will be meeting with the policing minister, alongside families affected by the tragedy, to discuss the report and to call for urgent and comprehensive change.
“We need a top to bottom review of gun laws and gun licencing to prevent a tragedy like Keyham and Ford’s from ever happening again.
“As ever, my thoughts are with all those in our city who are still hurting. Help is still available so please don’t struggle in silence.”
A Home Office spokeswoman said: “Our thoughts are with the loved ones of Maxine Davison, Lee and Sophie Martyn, Kate Shepherd and Stephen Washington.
“Since the tragedy, the Government has already taken steps to tighten firearms licencing including social media checks and a requirement for police to review information provided by GPs.
“We thank the coroner for his report. We will carefully consider the findings and respond in due course.”
In a statement, the families of Sophie and Lee Martyn, Stephen Washington and Kate Shepherd said they wanted to work with the Government and police to bring change to firearms laws.
“We stand shoulder to shoulder with the victims, families and communities in Dunblane, Durham, Surrey and Skye,” they said.
“We note that since 1987, more than 300 national recommendations have been made regarding firearms licensing.
“The time for tragedy, followed by inquests, reviews and reports, and then conclusions and suggestions is now over.
“We look forward to helping the Government and the police in enacting change.
“Root and branch reform is needed for an existing Act of Parliament from 1968 which, in 2023, is completely outdated, impractical and unsafe.
“We mirror the views of the coroner that the position taken in Northern Ireland under the 2004 order is illuminating and should be taken here in England and Wales to protect the public.”