Desmond inquiry looks at how Afghanistan veteran legally obtained firearm

GUYSBOROUGH, N.S. — Just over a year before Lionel Desmond bought a Soviet-era semi-automatic rifle and killed three members of his family and himself, the mentally ill former soldier was forced to hand over all of his firearms to police.

The incident that led to the confiscation was the focus Tuesday of a provincial fatality inquiry that started hearings last month in a small town in eastern Nova Scotia.

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The inquiry has already taken a close look at the role of the health-care system and whether Desmond and his family had access to help for mental health and domestic violence issues.

But key questions remain about how a man with severe post-traumatic stress disorder, major depression and a possible traumatic brain injury could hold a licence to possess and buy firearms.

On Jan. 3, 2017, Desmond legally purchased an SKS 7.62 carbine, which he later used to kill his 31-year-old wife Shanna, their 10-year-old daughter Aaliyah and his 52-year-old mother Brenda inside the family's home in Upper Big Tracadie, N.S.

As the inquiry resumed Tuesday, its 12th day of hearings, RCMP Const. Steven Richard testified that he and three other Mounties were dispatched on Nov. 27, 2015 to the home in Oromocto, N.B., where Desmond was living at the time.

Richard said Desmond's wife told police she had received texts from him indicating he was contemplating suicide.

"He was saying it was time to go," Richard told the hearing, adding that one of Desmond's texts said he would see his young daughter in heaven.

The four officers knew Desmond had been diagnosed with depression and PTSD — and they were also aware he kept a firearm in his garage.

Desmond's wife, who was living in Nova Scotia at the time, confirmed that her husband was being medically discharged from the military — he was based at Canadian Forces Base Gagetown in New Brunswick — and that the couple was having marital problems.

"Their relationship wasn't the healthiest at that point," said Richard.

The constable testified that he arrested Desmond under the provincial Mental Health Act when it became clear he was a threat to himself, but the officer insisted the retired corporal did not appear to be a threat to anyone else.

"He was one of the most calm and straightforward people I ever arrested under the Mental Health Act," the officer said. "There was no indication for me to believe he was a threat to others."

Richard's testimony echoed that of several other witnesses who have said Desmond had the ability to keep calm and show deference to people in positions of authority, even when he was in distress.

The officer also testified there was no indication that domestic violence was an issue with the Desmonds, though he said he wasn't sure if it was discussed.

After Desmond was taken to a hospital in Fredericton, the Mounties seized a Savage .223 rifle from a locked case in his garage. Police in Nova Scotia later seized two other rifles Desmond kept in the couple's home in Upper Big Tracadie.

At the hospital, Desmond was assessed by a doctor for 20 minutes and released early on Nov. 28, 2015.

Richard said he knew Desmond had a firearms licence, but it did not occur to him to take it from him because the former infantryman never made any overt threat to use a weapon of any sort. Richard also said it was his understanding Desmond's license would soon be under review by New Brunswick's chief firearms officer.

However, the inquiry also heard Tuesday that Desmond's possession and acquisition licence wasn't placed under review until Dec. 29, 2015, which meant he could have purchased a weapon during the month after the suicide call in Oromocto.

As well, the inquiry heard that on the day after the incident in Oromocto — Nov. 28, 2015 — Desmond travelled to the home he occasionally shared with his wife in Nova Scotia, where he called the local RCMP detachment and demanded to know where his guns were.

Later that day, the RCMP received a complaint from Shanna Desmond's father, who alleged that Lionel Desmond was yelling toward his property, again demanding to know where his rifles were.

Richard said it wasn't until May 2016 that he learned Desmond had submitted a medical assessment to New Brunswick's chief firearms officer confirming he was not a threat to himself or others — and his license was reinstated and his guns returned on May 13, 2016.

The inquiry has heard the assessment was produced by Dr. Paul Smith, a family physician who worked at Canadian Forces Base Gagetown. Smith has yet to testify.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 18, 2020.

— By Michael MacDonald in Halifax

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