N.S. firearms officers told to expand background checks under Bill C-71, Desmond inquiry hears

Nova Scotia

The fatality inquiry into the deaths of Lionel Desmond, his wife, his daughter and his mother heard from Nova Scotia's chief firearms officer Monday about changes in law that may have given investigators more tools, but could also limit the time of an investigation.

The second day of the fatality inquiry into the deaths of a former soldier and his family resumes today.(Dave Irish/CBC)

A proposed federal law meant to reduce intimate partner violence involving firearms ought to give investigators more than 30 days to review a gun licence suspension, Nova Scotia's chief firearms officer told the Lionel Desmond inquiry Monday.

John Parkin told the fatality inquiry that investigators may need more than a month to get police data and medical documents as well as conduct interviews with those who know the person whose licence has been flagged for review.

Bill C-21 would give anyone the ability to make an order to the court to remove firearms from someone for up to 30 days — and a province's chief firearms officer the power to suspend someone's licence for that same time frame if they suspect they should no longer be eligible.

The proposed law speaks to one of the core mandates at the Desmond inquiry, which is finding out how a veteran with complex post-traumatic stress disorder — who had previously had his firearms seized by police after a mental health crisis — was able to pass two reviews of his acquisition licence.

He used that same licence on Jan. 3, 2017, to buy the rifle he used later in the day to kill his wife, Shanna; his 10-year-old daughter, Aaliyah; and his mother, Brenda.

Desmond then turned the gun on himself.

Shanna Desmond and her daughter, Aaliyah Desmond, died on Jan. 3, 2017, in the triple murder-suicide inside a home in Upper Big Tracadie, N.S. (Facebook)

The veteran's licence first came under review when he omitted his 2011 diagnosis of PTSD and severe depression; the second time his guns were taken was in November 2015 after he threatened suicide.

Although he did his guns back, the review process took months.

A New Brunswick firearms officer reinstated Desmond's licence in April 2016 after a receiving a medical note from a physician Desmond had seen that described the veteran as stable.

Parkin, who was not involved in Desmond's case, noted an investigation can be complex. Investigators don't have access to all of the police databases in Nova Scotia or Canada and scheduling conversations with the police officer involved yields even more information.

He said he had concerns about Bill C-21 imposing a 30-day time limit on suspensions if the proposed law were to pass as it's currently written.

Lionel Desmond underwent a seven-month tour of Afghanistan in 2007. He was diagnosed with PTSD four years later. (Facebook/The Canadian Press)

Changes to firearms policy

There have, however, been changes to federal firearms law as the inquiry has progressed that have added to the firearms officers' power for investigation.

In June, Parkin updated the provincial office's policy to reflect orders-in-council from Bill C-71, which expanded the scope of background checks to an applicant's lifetime instead of five years.

Parkin said the new policy "tries to push home the messaging that we should not limit the scope of our inquiry" if there are people who have information that can add to the investigation. That can include family, friends, a workplace, police files or medical documents, he said.

That collateral information can be critical, he said, particularly if there's a mental health concern and someone doesn't have access to a family doctor or psychiatrist.

"This is stuff that we experience every day in my office," he testified.

"Individuals are going to medical walk-in clinics where medical practitioners have no prior history or experience with the individual, nothing to base a reasonable diagnosis upon — so we end up looking at the totality of the circumstances, talking to other individuals, collecting information from other sources and making a determination."

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Laura Fraser is an award-winning journalist who writes about justice, health and the human experience. Story ideas are welcome at laura.fraser@cbc.ca

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