GUYSBOROUGH: The New Brunswick doctor who signed off on retired Cpl. Lionel Desmond’s firearms licence review described the 33-year-old veteran on the medical assessment as “non-suicidal and stable,” along with having “no concerns for firearms usage with appropriate licence.”
Fredericton-based physician, Dr. Paul Smith, who specializes in the assessment and utilization of medical marijuana – particularly with veterans suffering with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) – testified he hadn’t realized his medical opinion would carry as much weight as it did and it be the only one the provincial firearms office (PFO) would consider under its review.
“I didn’t think I was the final decision-maker here,” Dr. Smith told the fatality inquiry last Monday.
In fact, he testified he believed Cpl. Desmond’s firearms possession and acquisition licence would be rejected by the RCMP or another agency noting on several occasions all he had to do was put a check mark in a box that he agreed his patient didn’t pose a risk to himself or the public by owning a firearm.
“I’m only linking the chain of decision-making here,” Dr. Smith said. “I told him that I don’t think his chances were great, to get his application completed in a good way… following his suicide attempt.”
Previous evidence heard by the inquiry suggested Dr. Smith’s one-line assessment proved to be the influencing factor for New Brunswick’s acting chief firearms officer.
Lysa Rossignol testified February 20, his brief assessment, which echoed a similar assessment made by another physician in 2014, gave her the assurance she needed in reinstating Cpl. Desmond’s firearms possession and acquisition licence. She also told the inquiry, however, she was unaware of a December 2015 letter recommending Cpl. Desmond for admission to a residential treatment program for veterans suffering from PTSD, and had she been, she would have rejected the veteran’s application.
On January 3, 2017 Cpl. Desmond would use his reinstated firearms licence to purchase a Soviet-era SKS 7.62, semi-automatic military-style carbine that he would use less than two-hours-later to carry out the tragic triple murder-suicide in his wife’s family home in Upper Big Tracadie.
Dr. Smith’s long-awaited testimony came as the fatality inquiry entered into its fifth-week looking into what caused the former rifleman to kill his 31-year-old wife Shanna, 52-year-old mother Brenda, and 10-year-old daughter Aaliyah before turning the gun on himself.
The physician told the inquiry he first met Cpl. Desmond on July 2, 2015 after being referred to him by a fellow veteran to look at cannabis as an alternative medicine to treat his severe PTSD and major depression as his military-prescribed prescription drugs were no longer working.
“Lionel was a likeable guy right from the beginning – he wore his heart on his sleeve,” Dr. Smith said. “He was hoping to be relieved of some of his symptoms, which included insomnia, thinking about suicide and anger.”
In 2011, Cpl. Desmond was diagnosed with 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 most-bloodiest combat missions.
Four-years after his PTSD diagnosis, Cpl. Desmond was medically discharged from the military.
Despite tipping the charts in hyper-vigilance, depression, flashbacks, anger and feeling disconnected – Cpl. Desmond personally rated his suicidal thoughts at six, while Dr. Smith testified he assessed his suicidal ideation at zero.
Prescribed a ceiling-dose of 10-grams of cannabis per day, Cpl. Desmond subsequently stopped taking all of his other pharmaceuticals including anti-depressants and sleep-aids.
According to Dr. Smith, in a follow-up appointment only three-months-later on October 1, 2015 Cpl. Desmond reported significant improvements with his symptoms including his anxiety, poor sleeping, anger, agitation and chronic pain had all diminished to almost nothing since starting on medical marijuana.
Questions have been raised throughout the inquiry on the efficiency of his cannabis trial as the veteran later confided in another psychiatrist he felt his medical marijuana increased paranoid ideations about his wife’s fidelity.
“He was very open [to me] with his feelings. He had things to live for,” Dr. Smith testified. “He had a group of friends; he loved his daughter at least. I didn’t see any of the instability – his suicidal thinking had dropped dramatically.”
Despite those positive results, Dr. Smith told the inquiry about a conversation he had with Cpl. Desmond regarding a phone call he received a few weeks prior from Shanna indicating her husband was “acting aggressively and appeared to be in a manic state.”
Dr. Smith explained Cpl. Desmond insisted he wasn’t in a manic state and rather informed him he was frustrated with his wife for causing financial hardship and the couple was headed for a separation.
“The only thing he was stressed about was money from what I gathered,” Dr. Smith suggested. “It’s a raw issue. They’ve got money problems, and he’s pissed off at however it’s being handled.”
During their last appointment together on February 23, 2016 Cpl. Desmond indicated he was no longer using medical marijuana as he was preparing for his admittance after being referred to an in-patient facility in Montréal to seek medical therapy for his PTSD.
Dr. Smith told the inquiry, it was only then Cpl. Desmond requested his signature on a medical assessment form from the chief firearms officer in New Brunswick to reinstate his firearms licence.
The form described how Cpl. Desmond’s firearms were confiscated in both Nova Scotia and New Brunswick and his licence was placed under review because he was arrested under New Brunswick’s Mental Health Protection Act on November 27, 2015 after he called and said his goodbyes to his wife and suggested he was going to commit suicide at his home in Oromocto.
Inquiry counsel Shane Russell questioned Dr. Smith if he was aware of the two separate incidents in November 2015, where Nova Scotia RCMP responded to reports of Cpl. Desmond acting in an aggressive manner.
“It would have given a slightly different picture,” Dr. Smith noted of not being told of the interactions with police.
During cross-examination, lawyer Tom Macdonald, who represents the Borden family, asked Dr. Smith if he understood the form he was signing was for the reinstatement of a license that was at the time under review by New Brunswick’s PFO. The doctor responded he didn’t and thought it was a simple renewal application.
When asked as to why he still filled out the medical assessment for Cpl. Desmond’s firearms review, Dr. Smith explained the former soldier hadn’t seemed to be suicidal when they met, and appeared to have been maintaining a stable mindset ever since starting treatment on medical marijuana.
“What I knew Lionel to be was anything [but] someone unstable or unsafe to himself or others,” he concluded.
The New Brunswick PFO adopted a new medical assessment form just one month after the triple murder-suicide; something the province’s then-chief firearms officer testified was directly prompted in response to the tragedy.
The questionnaire now requires doctors to collect a more detailed history of the applicant to create a better understanding of their well-being.
“The new forms that they developed are wonderful,” Dr. Smith told the inquiry of what he considered a previously flawed form as it only included a checkbox and space for a one-line notation. “They ask questions that should be asked that were not asked here.”