Province ordered to release murderer’s gun licence file

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Decision related to killing in Bracebridge, Ont. has implications for other cases involving licensed gun owners who commit violent crimes but never face trial because they’ve died

EDITOR’S NOTE: A version of this article originally appeared on The Trillium, a new Village Media website devoted to covering provincial politics at Queen’s Park.

The provincial government must either release a file on a legal gun owner, licensed despite a record of violent crimes, who killed a former partner or go to court to try to stop its disclosure. 

The decision has implications for other cases involving licensed gun owners who commit violent crimes but never face trial because they’ve died.

In April 2013, Jeremy Pearson, 32, killed Lindsay Wilson, 26, in Bracebridge after the two broke up. Pearson, who also killed himself, used a gun he bought legally. He had been issued a gun licence despite being on probation after convictions for assault and forcible confinement.

The charges stemmed from a 2000 incident in which Pearson and another person kidnapped a man and drove off with him near Kingston. The victim managed to escape by opening the door and rolling out onto the highway, escaping serious injury. 

Despite his criminal record, he was issued a gun licence in 2004. In 2009, his licence was renewed even though he was facing a new charge after he was accused of stealing jewelry from someone he was privately buying firearms from, a later coroner’s investigation said. 

This journalist filed an FOI request for Pearson’s file with the provincial chief firearms officer in October 2021. In early October of this year, the province’s information and privacy commissioner ruled that it should be mostly released. The provincial government, which opposed the release of any part of the file, must now either comply or try to take the case to the appeal courts. 

Wilson’s mother supports the request and wants Pearson’s file to see the light of day.

“I expect them to release the document as instructed because I think it’s in the public interest to do so,” said Alison Irons.

“The process that was used to determine whether he should be granted a license and the discretion exercised may have contributed in part to my daughter’s death. And although one can say ‘Well, yes, but if he hadn’t been granted a license, he could have found another gun illegally,’ he didn’t — the government made it easy for him.”

A.J. Somerset, a firearms expert who wrote “Arms: The Culture and Credo of the Gun,” said the government should release the documents and be accountable for the decision it made to grant Pearson a licence. 

“I can’t see how you give a firearms license to somebody who’s on probation for a violent crime. When you have a suggestion that there’s that kind of gross negligence or incompetence, and they can simply say, ‘Oh, well, we’re not telling you how the decision was made. so therefore, you can’t actually take any action about it,’ you know, what the hell?”

“This is a democracy, and the public needs to have some oversight on how these systems work and the ability to say, ‘No, this is not working.’”

A decision in this case could have implications for disclosure in other, similar cases, including the recent shooting in Sault Ste. Marie. The gunman who shot and killed three young children and a woman before committing suicide was previously prohibited from owning firearms after a 2021 conviction for assaulting a police officer, Soo Today has reported.

In another case, Vaughan resident Francesco Villi, who shot and killed five people at a condo building in December of last year, committed the murders with a semi-automatic handgun. Villi had an extensive history of threats against both members of his condo board and his daughters, who were estranged because of his behaviour. He was the subject of multiple restraining orders, one of which a court found he had violated. 

Did he have the restricted-level gun licence that he would have needed to own the weapon legally? Or did he own it illegally, and was there never a failure of the gun control system in this case in the first place?

Villi, who was shot dead by police, will never stand trial, and the documents and testimony that might answer these questions are unlikely to come to light as things currently stand.   

“If there is no trial, then you never have any right to know,” Somerset said. “There are significant public-interest questions that are just not being answered.”

Irons found out for the first time from this month’s IPC decision that the CFO had carried out an internal investigation into Pearson’s gun licence after her daughter’s death, she said. 

So far, the province’s Ministry of the Solicitor General hasn’t committed itself to making the document public. 

“The ministry is aware of the recent IPC decision and is carefully reviewing the decision to inform next steps,” spokesperson Hunter Kell wrote in an email. 

NDP MPP John Vanthof, his party’s solicitor general critic and a licensed gun owner, called on the province to release the records so that society can learn from what happened and ensure it doesn’t happen again. 

“We have, I find, a strict system of legal firearm possession and I want to make sure that it’s as foolproof as possible. So we should learn if there are things that we can do better,” he said. 

Vantof said he believes there should be a balance about how much information is released about violent crime, weighing, on one hand, making public information needed to improve the gun control regime and, on the other, avoiding voyeurism of peoples’ tragedies.

“There has to be somewhere, a line, and this is a pretty good example,” he said. “Someone who shouldn’t have had a gun was able to purchase one legally, or possess one legally, so we need to find out how that happened.”

Wilson’s death was probed by the provincial coroner, who called for tighter scrutiny of gun licence applicants, especially those with a record of violent crime, mental illness, or drug or alcohol abuse. 

However, the Office of the Chief Coroner did not respond to questions from The Trillium about whether their recommendations had been replied to or acted on in the intervening years.

For her family, the loss still hurts.

“She was my best friend,” Irons said of her daughter. “She was gentle, and she was compassionate.”

“She and her brother were extremely close. Her brother still can’t say her name. Ten years later, he can’t say her name. And he just refers to ‘what happened’ — he can’t talk about it.”

With files from Jessica Smith Cross

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