‘A licence to kill’: Families accuse police after coroner rules Plymouth shooting victims were unlawfully killed

The families of people killed during a mass shooting in Plymouth have said the gunman was granted a “licence to kill” after “warnings signs were ignored” by police.

The statement comes after a coroner ruled Jake Davison’s five victims were unlawfully killed.

Their relatives said the “system has hopelessly failed us” and Devon and Cornwall Police “in particular” were to blame for the deaths of their loved ones.

The families said there had been “breathtaking incompetence and systemic failings within every level of the firearms licensing unit” of Devon and Cornwall Police.

Davison, 22, shot his mother Maxine, 51, before killing three-year-old Sophie Martyn, her father, Lee, 43, Stephen Washington, 59, and Kate Shepherd, 66, in August 2021 in the Keyham area of Plymouth.

He then turned the shotgun on himself as he was confronted by an unarmed police officer.

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‘The system has hopelessly failed us’

The attack, which took just eight minutes, was one of the worst mass shootings in UK history.

“It is beyond us how Davison, a man with a known history of violence, mental health issues, and with no real need to own a firearm, was granted a licence to possess a gun in the first place,” the family said in a statement released by their lawyers.

“Warning signs were ignored and a licence to kill was granted.”

The family statement comes after a jury inquest in Exeter heard nearly six weeks of evidence.

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CCTV shows Plymouth gunman attack teen

‘A consistent story of individual failings’

“Whilst today marks the end of this inquest, it will never mark the end of the pain for all of our families and loved ones,” the statement continued.

“Nothing will ever bring back Sophie, Lee, Stephen and Kate.

“On August 12 2021 our lives were changed forever. Our hearts are still incredibly heavy with grief, and we are still struggling to come to terms with our loss.

“We will never be able to understand or comprehend why Davison did what he did.

“It was an act of pure evil.

“However, we now know that this evil act was facilitated and enabled by a series of failings and incompetence from the people and organisations that are supposed to keep us safe.

“The system has hopelessly failed us. In particular, the Devon and Cornwall Police force has failed us.

“The evidence that we have heard during this inquest, over the past five weeks, is a consistent story of individual failures, breathtaking incompetence and systemic failings within every level of the firearms licensing unit of the Devon and Cornwall Police force.”

The inquest heard how Davison, an apprentice crane operator who had been obsessed with guns from a young age, legally held a shotgun licence despite having a history of violence.

He was granted a certificate in 2018 and had declared his autism and Asperger’s when applying – but Davison’s GP refused to provide details when asked by police processing his application.

Later that year, Davison bought a black Weatherby pump-action shotgun which he kept at home.

Firearm returned five weeks before killings

In September 2020, he was captured on CCTV punching a teenage boy nine times in a skate park in Plymouth and slapping a 15-year-old girl after a boy shouted abuse at him.

Police investigating the assault did not know he was a firearms holder – unaware that “FC” on a police database meant “Firearms Certificate” – and put him on the deferred charge Pathfinder scheme instead of prosecution.

His shotgun was eventually seized two months later – but as he was deemed low risk it was returned just five weeks before the killings.

‘They failed to protect our loved ones’

The families of the victims added in their statement: “The evidence that we have heard from Devon and Cornwall Police was that of a system that was a shambles from the top to the bottom.

“Those in charge of making decisions as to who should possess a gun, had no training on how to do the job.

“There was no supervision of those individuals. There was no auditing of the decisions that were being made.

“There was a culture of granting people firearms licences against a background of serious concern. Davison’s case was a prime example.

“These systemic failings with Devon and Cornwall Police have failed to protect the public. They failed to protect our loved ones.

“We firmly believe that these failings at Devon and Cornwall Police have resulted in the deaths of our loved ones.

“Warning signs were ignored and a licence to kill was granted.”

The Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC), the police watchdog, has made a string of recommendations to Devon and Cornwall Police and to the Home Office for forces across the country in a bid to “strengthen firearms licensing controls” in the wake of the mass shooting.

None of the police officers or staff investigated over the handling of Davison’s gun licence will lose their jobs despite the inquest’s findings.

The IOPC said that one member of Devon and Cornwall police staff received a written warning, an officer retired in 2021 so cannot face disciplinary proceedings, and there was no case to answer for a second officer.

It pointed to wider failings in training and guidance in the force, rather than individuals being to blame.

Police ‘truly sorry’ for failure

Will Kerr, chief constable of Devon and Cornwall Police, said after the inquest: “My thoughts and those of everyone within Devon and Cornwall Police remain with the families of those who died in, and survived, such tragic circumstances in August 2021.

“Devon and Cornwall Police has acknowledged that Jake Davison should never have been in possession of a shotgun licence.

“Steps should have been taken to safeguard our communities and for that failure I am truly sorry.”

The inquest jury said: “There was a catastrophic failure in the management of the firearms and explosives licensing unit, with a lack of managerial supervision, inadequate and ineffective leadership.

“This was compounded by a lack of senior management and executive leadership who failed to notice or address the issues.

“There was a lack of scrutiny and professional curiosity at all levels.”

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