Why firearms officers returned Lionel Desmond’s gun licence after suicide attempt, police calls

Lionel Desmond’s firearms licence first got flagged for review after a reference outed him as having lied on his application for omitting his diagnosis of complex post-traumatic stress disorder.

But despite that omission — and an attempt at suicide a year later — the Afghanistan veteran got that licence back, passing two separate firearms reviews at different times, according to testimony from New Brunswick’s acting chief firearms officer Wednesday at a Nova Scotia fatality inquiry looking at how the veteran with complex mental illness was able to get the licence back.

Desmond used that licence again on Jan. 3, 2017. He bought a Soviet-style semi-automatic rifle, parked his truck on a logging road behind his wife Shanna’s family home in Upper Big Tracadie, N.S., and then fatally shot her, their 10-year-old daughter Aaliyah, and his mother Brenda. 

The former soldier then shot himself in the head.

Even as the focus of the fatality inquiry in Guysborough has shifted this week from mental health care to how Desmond was able to acquire firearms, the two issues are inextricably linked.

Framed photos of Shanna and 10-year-old Aaliyah Desmond are displayed in the Borden family home, where they were killed on Jan. 3, 2017. (Eric Woolliscroft/CBC)

In November 2014 and February 2016, two separate doctors described the veteran as stable and non-suicidal.

By May 2016, Desmond was sent to an in-patient psychiatric facility for veterans with PTSD.

Those medical reports are what prompted the firearms office to validate Desmond’s licence, firearms officer Lysa Rossignol testified on Wednesday.

Upon hearing that, Judge Warren Zimmer signalled a recommendation likely to come from this inquiry: that firearms applicants who report a history of complex mental illness submit another medical review partway through the five-year renewal period.

Zimmer suggested a more proactive approach could save lives, instead of waiting for a family member, doctor or police officer to contact firearms officials about their concerns.

Judge Warren Zimmer is presiding over the Desmond inquiry in Guysborough, N.S. (Nova Scotia Courts)

“I would say it this way: stability doesn’t necessarily maintain forever,” he told the witness. “If you have to wait for five years to go back and do a check, there might be a better way to do it.”

CBC News has obtained the assessment completed by Dr. Paul Smith, which described Lionel Desmond as “non-suicidal and stable” and that he had “no concerns for firearms usage” in February 2016.

Medical clearance

It’s unclear exactly when Desmond first began seeing Smith, a Fredericton doctor who switched him from his previous medication to medicinal cannabis.

A prescription dated Oct. 1, 2015, signed by Smith marks one of the earliest pieces of evidence of their clinical relationship. That’s roughly five months before he signed off on Desmond’s firearms review.

Typically, the firearms office will only accept a medical form from a clinician who has known the patient “for some time,” Rossignol testified. When pressed, she didn’t specify exactly how long that needed to be.

Dr. Vinod Joshi, a psychiatrist assigned to Desmond while he was in the military, had signed off on an earlier review in November 2014 when the soldier was trying to renew his licence and upgrade it to include restricted firearms like handguns and other weapons.

He’d worked with Desmond for at least three years, according to Rossignol’s testimony.

And he described his patient as medicated, having shown neither signs of psychosis nor of suicidal ideation.

Joshi wrote that he saw no issue with renewing the licence Desmond first received in 2008.

But the area firearms officer who’d been assigned the soldier’s review did have other questions: he wanted to know why Desmond had lied on his application about his mental health.

Lionel Desmond’s firearms licence twice came up for review, but was cleared both times. (Facebook/The Canadian Press)

Joe Roper spoke with the soldier on the phone. He said Desmond told him he filled out the application with his wife and that neither thought his illness was relevant.

A military psychiatrist diagnosed Desmond with PTSD in 2011, although he began showing symptoms soon after he returned from a seven-month tour in Afghanistan in August 2007.

The memories of that tour haunted him: having to retrieve bodies on landmine-pocked roads, with the sound of gunfire and screaming punctuating the night.

He came home a changed man, his family has said.

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