Chief firearms officer didn’t think PFO had authority to periodically check applicant’s mental health

GUYSBOROUGH: Nova Scotia’s chief firearms office doesn’t have the authority to ask for an additional medical opinion after reinstating a firearms licence, unless the applicant gets flagged by the RCMP, a doctor, or a citizen from the community.

The province’s chief firearms officer, John Parkin testified Monday at the Desmond Fatality Inquiry that once a possession and acquisition licence is approved, it remains valid for five-years, unless the Provincial Firearms Office (PFO) has a reason to place it under review.

As the first session of the Desmond Fatality Inquiry – which lasted five-weeks – wrapped up in Guysborough on Monday, one of the things the judge presiding over the inquiry, has been tasked with is determining how the Afghanistan war veteran with severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), major depression and a possible traumatic brain injury could pass a review to reinstate his firearms licence.

In 2011, retired Cpl. Lionel Desmond was diagnosed with complex-PTSD after serving a seven-month tour in Afghanistan in 2007 with the 2nd Battalion Royal Canadian Regiment’s India Company. A then 24-year-old rifleman, Cpl. Desmond was in direct combat with the Taliban as they ramped up their guerilla campaign in one of the Canadian military’s bloodiest combat missions.

According to both his family and the family of his wife, Cpl. Desmond returned from Afghanistan “a changed man,” with rapid mood shifts, and a relationship with his wife that was deteriorating.

In making sure the mental health status of applicants doesn’t change, Nova Scotia Provincial Court Judge Warren Zimmer, questioned Parkin if it was possible for his office to systematically check on firearms licence holders if they’ve had a history with a mental illness.

Parkin didn’t believe he had the legal authority to do so.

“I’m not sure what the mechanics of that would look like. I don’t know if that’s technologically possible or feasible,” Nova Scotia’s chief firearms officer told Zimmer. “We would need opinions with more experts than my own on that one.”

Parkin told the inquiry the PFO would be wary to impose a policy of mental status checks because of potential legal concerns. His testimony reflected that of his New Brunswick equal, Lysa Rossignol who approved the review that returned Lionel’s firearms licence in May 2016.

Rossignol’s review was triggered by Cpl. Desmond’s suicide attempt in Oromocto, N.B., on Nov. 27, 2015, in which he said his goodbyes to his wife Shanna and was preparing to kill himself with his rifle.

Cpl. Desmond was arrested under New Brunswick’s Mental Health Protection Act, and his weapons were confiscated in both New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, and his firearms licence was suspended pending a medical assessment.

Rossignol told the inquiry she reinstated the veteran’s firearms licence after feeling reassured from a brief assessment from Dr. Paul Smith that described Cpl. Desmond as “non-suicidal and stable,” which echoed a similar assessment made by another physician in 2014.

Cpl. Desmond received his firearms licence back around the same time the former rifleman was being admitted to a residential in-patient program at Ste. Anne’s Hospital in Montréal, specializing in treatment for veterans suffering from PTSD.

The inquiry heard evidence the physicians at the in-patient program were concerns because Cpl. Desmond left the program early, gained little from treatment and was unsure how to deal with civilian life as he was preparing to return home.

However, previous testimony confirmed a more significant fact – Cpl. Desmond received no actual therapeutic treatment in the four-months prior to the triple murder-suicide on Jan. 3, 2017.

This resulted in Zimmer agreeing with an Antigonish-based psychiatrist that believed the veteran had “fallen through the cracks.”

During Rossignol’s testimony, Zimmer questioned her about why the PFO is required to wait until something happens in order to investigate – hinting at a recommendation – one that he revisited Monday, about the possibility of taking a more proactive approach that would allow for an interim check.

The judge also confirmed provincial and federal officials seemed to be operating in “silos” that prevented key information from being shared between Lionel’s heath care providers.

Zimmer told Parkin he should expect to be called back to provide advice regarding whether his recommendation could be adopted by the PFO.

The first phase of the inquiry which consisted of police, provincial health care providers, and firearms officials took a delve into the role of the health care system and whether Cpl. Desmond and his family had access to the appropriate mental health and domestic violence intervention services, as well as if the health professionals who interacted with the veteran were adequately trained to recognize the symptoms of occupational stress injuries or domestic violence.

It will now shift to testimony from various federal officials including Veterans Affairs.

The inquiry is expected to sit for three more sessions and will review additional evidence about domestic violence; Cpl. Desmond’s health care within the military; and the inquiry will learn what support, if any, Veterans Affairs offers to family members welcoming home a soldier who may have been affected during combat.

At the conclusion of the proceedings, Zimmer will file a written report with the Provincial Court containing his findings and recommendations, but his report will not contain any findings of legal responsibility.