The Lionel Desmond Inquest heard from its final witness on Tuesday, wrapping up more than two years of evidence gathering into what led an Afghan veteran to kill himself and his family in January 2017.
The focus will now be on what recommendations the inquest will make to prevent such tragedies in the future.
Nova Scotia Chief Firearms Officer John Parkin testified before the Port Hawkesbury, Nova Scotia, inquest on Tuesday for the third time.
On this occasion, the inquiry drew on its expertise to determine what changes are needed to ensure that people with mental illness or a history of domestic violence are given additional scrutiny when they apply for a firearms acquisition permit.
Lionel Desmond twice had doctors sign medical documents that said he posed no risk to himself or anyone else by holding a firearms license; in the first case, he was flagged for review after a firearms officer learned from one of the Afghan veteran’s references that he had withheld his diagnosis of post-stress stress disorder. trauma of 2011.
The second time, Desmond’s license was suspended and a firearm seized by Nova Scotia RCMP after the Afghan veteran threatened to kill himself in November 2015.
In early 2016, a doctor who prescribed Desmond medical cannabis for PTSD provided the medical documents a firearms officer would tell the inquest that she relied on almost exclusively in making her decision to reinstate license.
While this exam was going on, Desmond’s psychologist and psychiatrist were looking for a place for him in an inpatient mental institution to try to stabilize his chronic symptoms of PTSD, which included difficulty controlling his emotions.
On January 3, 2017, approximately five months after his release from Ste. Anne’s Hospital in Quebec, Desmond legally purchased a Soviet-style semi-automatic rifle, then traveled to his in-laws’ home in Upper Big Tracadie, Nova Scotia.
There he shot and killed his wife, Shanna, his 10-year-old daughter, Aaliyah, and her mother, Brenda, before turning the gun on himself.
The responsibility of a doctor
Following Parkin’s earlier testimony, Judge Warren Zimmer hinted strongly at potential changes to firearms policy and legislation that he could recommend in his final report, particularly to ensure that attendants firearms can have access to relevant medical history.
On Tuesday, he agreed with Parkin that it would be helpful to require medical professionals who authorize a firearms license applicant to report if that patient’s mental health subsequently deteriorates.
“In the end, when you ask, what if they don’t?” Zimmer said. “Well, if they don’t and it becomes a big enough problem, then maybe there needs to be a legislative change.”
He hinted that he would recommend these changes — in the same way that many doctors are obligated to report a risk to public safety when it comes to their patient with a driver’s license.
There are approximately 75,000 firearms license holders in Nova Scotia, with nine firearms officers to investigate concerns. Parkin said that’s one of the reasons some people can fall through the cracks.
It’s also why the bureau relies on outside sources to raise red flags: police reports, medical professionals and family members or colleagues, he said.
“I’m concerned about changes to the system that would help close those gaps so things don’t slip,” Zimmer replied.
The inquest will meet again on April 19 when the lawyers submit their recommendations to the judge for consideration in his final report.