Nova Scotia·DAY 12 OF INQUIRY

Firearms officers tell inquiry how a veteran with PTSD was able to keep a gun licence

The focus of the Desmond inquiry shifts this week from access to health-care to access to weapons.

Lionel Desmond bought a gun on Jan. 3, 2017, which he used to kill his family and himself

The Desmond inquiry's focus in its fourth week will shift from health care to firearms. (Dave Irish/CBC)

The focus of the Desmond inquiry has shifted from access to health care to access to firearms as the RCMP officer who took Lionel Desmond's rifle in 2015 testified he did so because the Afghanistan veteran seemed suicidal.

Const. Steven Richard and his colleague took the weapon after Desmond's wife Shanna called from Nova Scotia, saying that her husband had just said his goodbyes — and was heading to his garage in Oromocto, N.B., where he stored one of his guns. 

Richard arrested Desmond under New Brunswick's Mental Health Act. But the soldier, who was just then being released from the military due to ongoing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, saw a doctor for 20 minutes at the hospital and was home soon after, by the wee hours of Nov. 28, 2015, the RCMP officer testified.

And he likely didn't know that police had also taken his rifle from his wife's home in Nova Scotia.

Shanna and Lionel Desmond hold their newborn daughter Aaliyah in a photo from the Facebook page of Shanna Desmond. (Canadian Press/Facebook)

Later that morning — a little more than a year before Desmond would kill his wife, his 10-year-old daughter, his mother and himself — he would drive back to Guysborough County, N.S., and start yelling at Shanna about "giving away his gun." His father-in-law would call the RCMP, one of many such calls since Desmond's return from a seven-month tour in Afghanistan in 2007. 

Despite these repeated calls to police and his ongoing struggle with PTSD and major depression, Desmond would get both guns back — and his licence reinstated.  

A medical assessment obtained by CBC News shows that a Fredericton family doctor determined in February 2016 that Lionel Desmond was "non-suicidal and stable" and that he had "no concerns for firearms usage."

Desmond got his guns back in mid-May 2016, about the same time he would enter an in-patient treatment program in Montreal for veterans with severe PTSD.

Framed photos of Shanna and 10-year-old Aaliyah Desmond are displayed in the Borden family home, where they were killed on Jan. 3, 2017. (Eric Woolliscroft/CBC)

Still had physical licence

Inquiry counsel questioned why Richard never took the licence that Desmond carried. 

The licence didn't get listed as being under review until Dec. 29, 2015, although Richard's testimony wasn't at all clear as to why that happened. 

He told the judge that he tried to call the provincial firearms office but wasn't able to reach anyone until February 2016. In the meantime, he said he might have been able to check on the licence's status — and whether it had been reviewed — by checking a firearms licence database, but he seemed unsure about how accurate the information in that would be.   

It's unclear whether the officer simply didn't know how to use it or whether there's an issue with its accuracy. 

Officers with the provincial firearms office may offer more insight when they testify Wednesday.

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Laura Fraser

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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