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Desmond inquiry: firearms official says there was confusion over RCMP reports

PORT HAWKESBURY, N.S. — At the heart of an inquiry investigating why a former soldier killed three family members and himself four years ago are questions surrounding Lionel Desmond's ability to own and buy guns.

PORT HAWKESBURY, N.S. — At the heart of an inquiry investigating why a former soldier killed three family members and himself four years ago are questions surrounding Lionel Desmond's ability to own and buy guns.

On Tuesday, the provincial fatality inquiry heard testimony from a former firearms officer who said he might have suspended Desmond's firearms licence had he known more about his run-ins with the law and his struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Joe Roper, former firearms officer with New Brunswick's Public Safety Department, said he was assigned to review Desmond's licence renewal application in September 2014, while Desmond was still serving in the army as a corporal based at Canadian Forces Base Gagetown.

Desmond's application was flagged because one of his references indicated he had PTSD, a fact he failed to disclose on his application. That form included a question asking if the firearm owner had been diagnosed or treated for depression, substance abuse or behavioural problems.

Roper said when he contacted Desmond about the omission, the infantryman said he didn't check that box on the form because PTSD was not among the conditions listed.

"I accepted his version of why he answered no," Roper told the Nova Scotia inquiry. "He was pleasant on the phone. He was easy to deal with .... I didn't think he was as troubled as he was."

As well, Roper said he spoke with Dr. Vinod Joshi, a military psychiatrist who had been treating Desmond for more than four years. Joshi confirmed he had no problem with Desmond possessing firearms because he was taking medications, showed no signs of psychosis and had never mentioned self-harm or violent thoughts, Roper told the inquiry.

Roper later approved the renewal of Desmond's licence.

However, Roper was asked to conduct another investigation on Dec. 29, 2015 after the chief firearms officer received word through the Canadian Firearms Information System that Desmond had been the subject of a complaint to New Brunswick RCMP a month earlier.

RCMP officers have told the inquiry they were dispatched to Desmond's home in Oromocto, N.B., on Nov. 27, 2015 after his wife, Shanna, told police he had sent her texts indicating he was contemplating suicide. He said he would soon see his young daughter, Aaliyah, in heaven.

Last year, RCMP Const. Steven Richard told the inquiry he arrested Desmond under the provincial Mental Health Act because it was clear the man was a threat to himself. Richard, however, insisted the retired corporal did not appear to be a threat to anyone else.

After Desmond was taken to a hospital in Fredericton, the Mounties seized a rifle from a locked case in his garage, and his firearms licence was suspended. Desmond was assessed by a doctor for 20 minutes and released early the next day.

Roper later obtained a medical assessment from Dr. Paul Smith, who said he supported the reinstatement of his patient's licence because Desmond was "non-suicidal and stable." Smith also wrote that he had "no concerns for firearms usage and appropriate licence."

Desmond's licence was reinstated on Feb. 29, 2016. "I didn't think there was an issue," Roper told the inquiry.

But the inquiry learned Roper was never told that the RCMP had been dispatched to Shanna Desmond's home in Nova Scotia on Nov. 18, 2015 — nine days before the incident in New Brunswick — to conduct a "wellness check" on Lionel Desmond.

Police were told Lionel Desmond behaviour was manic because he wasn't taking his medication. Inquiry lawyer Allen Murray read from an RCMP occurrence report, saying officers at the scene spoke to Shanna Desmond, who told them she feared "that harm may come to (her husband) or someone else."

Murray asked Roper if he would have changed his approach to Desmond's firearms licence reinstatement had he known about the officer's observations.

"Yes, I'm sure they would have," he said. "I was shocked when this was brought to my attention."

Roper said there was confusion over the incidents involving the RCMP in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, which he blamed on the lack of access to police reports.

At the time, New Brunswick's chief firearms officer was required to file a request with an RCMP liaison officer to obtain police records, a process that could sometime take a week. As well, Roper said, the files received from the Mounties were just summaries.

Roper said "the biggest deficiency" when he was a firearms officer was that they didn't have ready access to police files through the RCMP's Police Reporting and Occurrence System. The inquiry was told that firearms officials in New Brunswick can now use the PROS system.

"If I had been able to speak with the officers and got all the facts, certainly the decision may have been different," Roper said.

Provincial court Judge Warren Zimmer, who is leading the inquiry, asked Roper if he knew that the military had banned Desmond from using weapons. Again, Roper said he was in the dark, adding that his office did not have access to military files, aside from military police records.

"If the military wouldn't have allowed him to use firearms ... for sure, that would weigh greatly on my decision," Roper said.

On Jan. 3, 2017, Desmond bought a semi-automatic rifle and later that day shot his 31-year-old wife, their 10-year-daughter and his mother, Brenda, 52, before killing himself in their home in Upper Big Tracadie, N.S. 

After the hearings concluded Monday, inquiry lawyer Adam Rodgers revealed that the Nova Scotia Barristers' Society has suspended him for one year, effective July 1, after a panel found he had engaged in professional misconduct by encouraging his law partner's fraudulent dealings with clients' funds.

Rodgers, who represents Lionel Desmond's estate, issued a statement saying the sanction was unfair because the panel confirmed that he took no part in his former partner's actions.

He also asked the panel to allow him to complete his work at the inquiry, which is expected to wrap up this fall.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 23, 2021.

— By Michael MacDonald in Halifax.

The Canadian Press