In the UK, as in many other countries around the world, armed domestic violence is a hidden killer. The Disarm Domestic Violence campaign continues to highlight cases and share recommendations to help make women safer in their homes. Although British newspapers focus on street crime with guns, the majority of women murdered with guns in the country are killed in domestic violence incidents, usually with a gun that was owned legally.

In England and Wales, 1 in 3 women killed by their husbands is shot with a legally owned weapon - 64% of these murders involve shotguns. (Criminal Statistics England and Wales, 2000) Research by the Gun Control Network shows that between 2004-2008, nearly three quarters of the 39 female gun homicide victims in Britain were killed in domestic incidents. In the majority of cases, the guns were legally held.

In recent weeks there have been a number of armed domestic violence incidents including one where three women were shot dead by a man with a legally held shotgun. On New Year’s Eve, Michael Atherton, 42, shot his partner Susan McGoldrick, 47, her sister Alison Turnbull, 44, and her niece Tanya Turnbull, 24, in Horden, County Durham. Mr Atherton, who shot himself dead after killing the three women was licensed to own six weapons, three of them shotguns and a further three ‘section one’ firearms which are restricted to specific uses under specific circumstances. An investigation is currently underway to look into allegations that a police officer's recommendation to refuse to give a shotgun licence to the perpetrator was overturned at a more senior level.

Although there are national guidelines about how the law should be interpreted there is no provision that clearly relates to the use of legally held firearms in domestic violence cases. There are over 30 different pieces of legislation which cover firearms and more than 50 constabularies in the UK and each constabulary can apply their own interpretation of those laws. When concerns are raised about a gun owner, there needs to be a robust mechanism to establish their suitability and remove their licence if necessary. At the moment these decisions are left to the discretion of the police.

Under the 1968 Firearms Act a firearms license must be refused to an applicant with ‘intemperate habits’ and the 2002 Home Office guidelines suggest this would include evidence of aggressive behaviour including domestic disputes (12.8a) and evidence of a pattern of disturbing behaviour suggesting possible future misuse of firearms (12.8c). The law is less explicit for shotgun licences, but an applicant should not be a ‘danger to the peace’ and the IANSA Women’s Network believes that potential domestic violence offenders are exactly that: dangers to the peace.

The IANSA Women’s Network believes that the law, in word and spirit, supports prohibiting firearms and shotgun licences if the applicant is a potential domestic violence offender. Gun possession is an extraordinary privilege, and this should not be given if there is a significant risk of future violence and/or domestic abuse.

For more information see The Infer Trust website on Armed Domestic Violence: