How the Keyham shooting shook Plymouth to its core - and shows cracks in the UK's approach to guns

The inquest into the Plymouth shooting has now revealed how the victim's of the shooting were failed and "unlawfully killed" highlighting the depth of the tragedy and it's ramifications for the UK as a whole in approaches to gun control. Credit: PA

In the late summer of 2021, a heavy atmosphere hung over the city of Plymouth.

Pictures of familiar streets filled newspaper pages and TV bulletins.

Flowers, balloons, candles and teddy bears piled up on pavements.

Painted murals appeared on walls and buildings. Politicians talked of healing, togetherness and support.

But everybody seemed to be stumbling around in a foggy haze. 

Five innocent people had lost their lives, shot by a man who then turned the weapon on himself.

For a while, that was all we knew. 

One week after the awful events in Keyham, the city hosted the annual British Fireworks Championships.

Thousands gathered on Plymouth Hoe for an event which has become a much-loved staple of Plymouth’s summer calendar.

All of the usual ingredients were there.

Live music; picnic blankets; vertigo-inducing fairground rides; pop-up stalls selling sickly sweet candy floss; and a stunning sunset bathing the waterfront in a warm orange glow.

As night closed in, the crowd fell quiet in memory of the five victims.

Phones were held aloft, illuminated screens piercing the darkness.

Rockets exploded into hearts, the symbol of the city's grief, love and hope. I have never known a moment quite like it.

  • Watch: British Fireworks Championships dedicated to Keyham victims

Funerals took place, and the bereaved families mourned in private.

Eventually, that sense of a city in shock and disbelief gave way to something more tangible.

Inquiries were launched, reports written, decisions scrutinised, and officials and officers placed under investigation.

A year of pre-inquest hearings provided a glimpse of just how big a task it would be to unpick everything which contributed to this horrendous incident.

But on the morning of 17 January this year, in a large conference room at Exeter Racecourse, jurors, family members, lawyers and journalists assembled to finally hear the full story from beginning to end.

During five weeks, more than 50 witnesses gave evidence to the inquest.

From bereaved family members, neighbours and witnesses, to chief constables and detective inspectors, to schoolteachers, doctors and forensic pathologists.

It is rare for such a lengthy court case to dominate headlines and hold the attention of viewers and readers throughout.

But each day the revelations just kept on coming, and for those of us in court, it was like gradually completing a jigsaw, the jagged pieces of which we had been trying in vain to assemble for the past 18 months.

Bridget Dolan KC, the diligent and highly-skilled counsel to the inquest, left no stone unturned in her efforts to help the jury understand not just the incident in Keyham, not just the failings which led up to it, but the wider context of firearms licensing; policing in the time of Covid; mental health services; domestic violence; government legislation; primary care; special educational needs; and much more besides.

As the evidence kept coming, it became horrifyingly clear that this was a story with many strands.

It was not just about five innocent people shot dead by a young man with a short temper and an obsession with weapons.

It was not just about a police force's firearms licensing department which was understaffed, overstretched and unaccountable. 

Police at the scene of the attacks in Keyham

Inexperienced, untrained staff members were ticking boxes, failing to refer high-risk cases to their superiors, failing to check on the physical and mental health of the region's gun owners; and failing to follow the guidance which should have helped them to make life or death decisions.

The court heard Devon and Cornwall Police's firearms licensing unit had a culture of giving applicants the "benefit of the doubt", an assumption that if you apply for a gun licence you will get it unless there is an exceptional reason to refuse.

A "risk matrix", designed to help officers decide whether applicants were suitable and safe to own a weapon, was not being used. 

We heard evidence of confusing and complex IT systems.

Of senior officers distracted from their day jobs by Covid-19 or the G7 summit of world leaders in Cornwall. Of simple questions not being asked, and straightforward checks not being carried out.

Beyond Plymouth, this inquest has exposed alarming issues in public life which had been present for many years.

As far back as 1996, a report into the Dunblane massacre made several recommendations on firearms licensing which, 27 years later, have still not been fully implemented. 

In 2015, a national inspection of police forces warned that unless licensing practices changed, there would be 'another tragedy'.

In 2016, the Home Office clashed with the British Medical Association, as family doctors were refusing to provide medical information to police forces on patients applying for weapons certificates.

Among the most striking pieces of evidence was gunman Jake Davison's contact with the police and criminal justice system, and the multiple times the route to this tragedy could have been blocked.

As a schoolboy, he developed an obsession with weaponry, ammunition and artillery and even dreamed of one day moving to America to open a gun shop.

His explosive temper was evident from early on. Aged 12, he assaulted two teachers.

He was described in court as being drawn to violence, using his size to intimidate others.

Davison was diagnosed with an autistic spectrum disorder. 

When he was 15, his school referred him to Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services.

His mother was growing so concerned about his interest in guns, she disconnected their internet connection.

Around the same time, she tried to get him seen by a GP because of her fears about his state of mind.

Davison was not charged with a criminal office following the incident

In September 2020, Davison violently attacked two teenagers in a park in Plymouth, punching a 16-year-old boy nine times and leaving him needing hospital treatment.

CCTV footage of the attack was shown in court, and police were questioned at length about why they did not charge Davison with a criminal offence, which may have barred him from having a gun licence for five years.

The merits, or otherwise, of "restorative justice" and "community resolutions" were explored in detail, opening up complex debates about crime and punishment and the changing role of the police and the justice system.

Lawyers questioned the judgment of those who signed off Davison's paperwork, deemed him to be "low risk" and returned his weapon, four weeks before the shooting.

There are endless avenues to go down, so many "what ifs" and hypotheticals.

What if Davison's former science teacher had refused to be a referee for his gun licence?

What if an emergency mental health call handler had taken his 'self-harm and mood swings' more seriously?

What if his Pathfinder key worker had been more forceful in expressing his concerns about the return of the weapon? 

What if the police had been aware of his hate-filled YouTube videos and online searches for serial killers?

The full story has now been told, but there are more questions still to answer. Could the inquest result in criminal charges?

Will it lead to reform in the law?

Will Keyham one day be seen as a watershed moment in gun licensing?

Could something positive come out of such a terrible tragedy?

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