As the Desmond inquiry hears from its last witness, the judge hints at changes to come

The Lionel Desmond inquiry heard from its final witness Tuesday, closing more than two years of evidence gathering into what led an Afghanistan veteran to fatally shoot his family and himself in January 2017.

The focus will shift now to the recommendations the inquiry will make to prevent future such tragedies.

Nova Scotia’s chief firearms officer, John Parkin, testified Tuesday before the Port Hawkesbury, N.S., inquiry for the third time.

On this occasion, the inquiry drew upon his expertise to determine what changes are needed to make sure people with ongoing mental illness or a history of domestic violence face additional scrutiny when applying for a firearms acquisition licence. 

Lionel Desmond twice had doctors sign off on medical paperwork that declared him neither a risk to himself or anyone else in holding a firearms licence; in the first case, he had been flagged for review after a firearms officer learned from one of the Afghanistan veteran’s references that he hadn’t disclosed his 2011 post-traumatic stress disorder diagnosis.

The second time, Desmond’s licence was suspended and a gun was seized by RCMP in Nova Scotia after the Afghanistan veteran threatened to commit suicide in November 2015. 

In early 2016, a doctor who prescribed Desmond medical cannabis for PTSD provided the medical paperwork a firearms officer would tell the inquiry that she almost exclusively relied on in making her decision to reinstate the licence.

Shanna Desmond and her daughter were among the four people killed in the home in Upper Big Tracadie, N.S. (Facebook)

While that review was happening, Desmond’s psychologist and psychiatrist were seeking a spot for him at an in-patient psychiatric facility to try to stabilize his chronic symptoms of PTSD, which included trouble controlling his emotions.

On Jan. 3, 2017, roughly five months after his release from Ste. Anne’s Hospital in Quebec, Desmond legally purchased a Soviet-style semi-automatic rifle and then drove to his in-laws home in Upper Big Tracadie, N.S.

There, he fatally shot his wife, Shanna, his 10-year-old daughter, Aaliyah, and his mother, Brenda, before turning the gun on himself. 

Lionel Desmond is shown here in this family photo, with his mother, Brenda, left, and daughter, Aaliyah, right. (Submitted by Cassandra Desmond)

A doctor’s responsibility

Following Parkin’s previous testimony, Judge Warren Zimmer hinted heavily at potential changes to firearms policy and legislation that he may recommend in his final report — in particular, around ensuring firearms officers can get access to relevant medical history.

On Tuesday, he agreed with Parkin that it would be useful to compel medical professionals who clear an applicant for a firearms licence to report if that patient’s mental health later deteriorates.

“At the end of the day when you ask, what if they won’t?” Zimmer said. “Well, if they won’t and it becomes a broad enough problem, then perhaps there needs to be a legislative change.”

He suggested that he would be recommending those changes — much in the same way that many doctors are compelled to report a public safety risk when it comes to their patient holding a driver’s licence. 

There are roughly 75,000 firearms licence holders in Nova Scotia, with nine firearms staff to investigate concerns. Parkin said that’s one of the reasons why certain people may fall through the cracks.

It’s also why the office relies on outside sources to raise red flags: police reports, medical professionals and family members or colleagues, he said.

“I’m concerned with changes in the system that would help close those gaps so that things don’t slip through,” Zimmer responded.

The inquiry will meet again on April 19 when lawyers will submit their recommendations for the judge to consider in his final report.

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