Published Date: 09.12.2014
The Police Ombudsman has found that the police decision to grant a firearms certificate to a man who several months later shot and killed an 18 year old woman was made in line with current legislation and procedures.
Phelim McNally was jailed for the murder of Lauren O’Neill, who was shot dead in her home near Bellaghy on 19 May 2012, and for the attempted murder of her sister.
McNally had carried out the shooting with a legally held firearm and had been granted a firearms certificate by police on 9 January that year.
He had previously received an Adult Caution for Threats to Kill and Attempted Burglary with Intent to Commit Grievous Bodily Harm.
The PSNI referred their issuing of the firearm certificate in such circumstances to the Police Ombudsman’s Office for independent investigation.
The Police Ombudsman, Dr Michael Maguire, said Lauren’s death was a tragedy for her family:
“With the benefit of hindsight, it is only natural to ask was it right to grant a firearms certificate to a man who had previously threatened violence.
"My investigators have looked at this issue in very fine detail. Police did not hold any information which would have given an indication of what was to happen. The decision they made was in line with the legislation and guidance available to them. In addition to my own investigation, the decision making was tested with two external experts who assessed the PSNI decision as appropriate given the circumstances.
Two external experts assessed PSNI decision as appropriate in the circumstances.
"The police could not have known McNally would use the weapon four months later to kill this young woman. The awful consequences of their decision are a separate matter however, and my thoughts go out to O’Neill family.”
Police Ombudsman investigators established that McNally applied for the Certificate in October 2011: the firearm was to be used for shooting duck and game on a landowner’s property.
He provided the landowner’s details, the details of two referees and indicated that he had a conviction for a driving offence in 2005.
PSNI guidance on the issuing of firearms sets out a variety of checks which police must make before they can satisfy themselves that the applicant is fit to be entrusted with a firearm and ammunition and has good reason to have them.
The police conducted a number of checks, including getting a copy of McNally’s criminal record. This showed his previous convictions for minor traffic offences in 2005 and 2006.
The PSNI’s Firearms and Explosive Branch also checked the police case handling system and became aware that McNally had been arrested at an incident in April 2009 for Threats to Kill and Attempted Burglary with Intent to Commit Grievous Bodily Harm.
These offences were recorded as ‘pending‘ and had not therefore been entered on his criminal record.
However, the incident was flagged as a cause for concern, which was then referred for further consideration.
Police considered that McNally was not a danger to himself and/or others.
The police ultimately satisfied themselves that McNally met the criteria for a firearms certificate, that he was not considered a danger to himself and/or others and on 9 January 2012, granted him the certificate.
Following Lauren’s fatal shooting, police officers investigating her murder became aware that McNally had received an Adult Caution for the incidents in 2009.
When asked by Police Ombudsman investigator why this updated information had not been on McNally’s criminal record, the PSNI said it was the responsibility of police at a local level to send this information to the Criminal Records Office, which would then update the record. They said this had not happened because of an administrative error.
The PSNI said it has now moved to a new computer system whereby police at local level were able to enter such information directly onto criminal records.
However, the Senior Firearms Licensing Manager, who granted McNally’s certificate, believed a full vetting had taken place. She said the presence of an Adult Caution would not have been sufficient to alter her decision or refuse the application.
The Firearms (Northern Ireland) Order 2004 states that a person who has been convicted of a crime and sentenced to three or more years in prison or detention is prohibited from buying, acquiring or having a firearm or ammunition. Where a sentence is for a period between three months and three years, the person is prohibited from having a firearm and ammunition for 8 years.
Investigators sought a second opinion from a police service in Great Britain about whether police should grant such a certificate to a person they had previously cautioned for Threats to Kill.
External firearms expert said given the information which had been provided, she too would have granted the certicate.
The Firearms Manager from that police service, who has 26 years experience in the role, said the existence of the adult caution would not have been a determining factor in deciding whether or not to grant the application. She said that given the information which had been provided, she too would have granted the certificate.
NOTE TO EDITORS.
The PSNI processes approximately 20,000 applications for the granting/renewal of firearms certificates in Northern Ireland each year.
There are approximately 146,000 legal held firearms (not including those held by the security forces) in Northern Ireland.