Skip to content

Ontario government pushes back on release of killers' gun licence files

After it was forced to release documents on a licensed gun owner who committed a 2013 murder-suicide, the province's solicitor-general is refusing to release documents in four similar cases, including one in Burk's Falls
Police are seen in the lobby of a condo building following a shooting in Vaughan, Ont., Sunday, Dec. 18, 2022. Police say multiple people are dead, including the suspect, after a shooting in an apartment building.

Ontario's solicitor general is refusing to release documents that would shed light on how and why killers were granted gun licences.

A reporter for The Trillium obtained licensing documents concerning a legal gun owner who committed a 2013 murder-suicide with the backing of Ontario's information and privacy commissioner, after a two-year battle with the province's solicitor-general. Despite that precedent, the province is refusing to release documents in four similar cases. 

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 just after his probation for assault and forcible confinement ended. 

A censored version of Pearson's gun licence file was released to The Trillium under a freedom-of-information request after an order by the IPC this past fall. 

"This is a clear case where the integrity of the (Chief Firearms Officer)’s assessment of an individual’s suitability to possess weapons, as well as its ability to protect the public, have been called into question," adjudicator Jessica Kowalski wrote in her decision.

"I find that the desire for public scrutiny in this case stems not only from the fact that the licensee used a legally-owned weapon to kill his former girlfriend, but from a concern in understanding how he could have been assessed as a suitable candidate to possess a firearm." 

The provincial chief firearms officer (CFO) oversees the gun control system in Ontario and has the authority to grant, withdraw or refuse a gun licence. CFOs have very broad powers under the federal Firearms Act to take gun licences away for public safety reasons.

Following Kowalski's decision, The Trillium filed FOI requests for the firearms licence files for four further people:

  • Mark Jones, who killed three people and himself in Burk's Falls on Feb. 23, 2018. Jones was a licensed firearms owner, and was allowed to retain his guns after local resident Ulla Theoret — who he would later kill — accused him of sexual assault in a detailed complaint to the OPP. "If a licence holder is reported to have sexually assaulted someone ... that should, when coded correctly, trigger a notification to the CFO," then-CFO Dwight Peer told the Globe and Mail in 2019. 
  • Christopher Doncaster, who killed two police officers and himself in Innisfil on Oct. 11, 2022. Doncaster would have needed a firearms licence to legally own the semi-automatic SKS rifle used in the killings, and the .22 found in his house, but it's not clear whether he had one.
  • Francesco Villi, who shot and killed five people at a highrise building in Vaughan on Dec. 18, 2022, using a pistol he bought legally in 2019. That means he had a restricted-level licence, allowing him to own handguns, which comes with extra scrutiny. In the fall of 2018, the condo board in Villi's building had successfully taken out a restraining order against him in response to "threatening, abusive, intimidating and harassing behaviour." He had also been diagnosed with suicidal ideation
  • Terry Brekka, who killed his two tenants in Hamilton on May 27, 2023, and was subsequently killed by police. Police found two prohibited firearms in his house. The Toronto Star reported that he was the "registered owner of multiple handguns and rifles," which should mean that he had a restricted-level licence.

All four were refused on a similar basis to how Pearson's file was originally refused, despite the IPC decision in that case. The Trillium filed an appeal with the IPC in all four cases on Friday.

Why is it important to see these documents?

In cases where murderers don't survive — whether killed by police or by their own hand — there isn't a trial, and therefore, there isn't an opportunity for a deeper understanding of what happened and why and whether a problem exists that can be fixed. In Villi's case, for example, it would be useful to know whether the CFO was aware of his restraining order and, if not, whether there should have been an information chain to make sure they did.

What we learned from the Pearson documents

The documents we received give rise to questions about giving firearms licences to people with violent criminal backgrounds. 

Pearson started the application process and passed the gun safety course before his probation ended in May of 2004. In August of 2004, the file says, he was involved in a large fight outside a bar. Also in August, Pearson was told he would need to be interviewed by police before a decision would be made about giving him a gun licence. 

In February 2005, an OPP officer approved Pearson's licence application after interviewing him. 

The officer, now retired, did not respond to an interview request. In response to an FOI request, the Ministry of the Solicitor General said it no longer had a copy of the interview report. 

Pearson would have presented himself well at an interview, said Alison Irons, Wilson's mother. Irons is convinced that Pearson wanted a gun to protect his drug trafficking business, and then used it to kill her daughter. 

"Jeremy was very articulate, and very clean-cut," she said. "He didn't look like what one would picture a drug dealer would look like."

"But that in itself is a problem, if you're stereotyping based on how the applicant looks. In a sense, that's a kind of profiling." 

Irons said it's a problem that officers can use their discretion to issue a licence in the first place. 

"I think that when it comes to domestic violence or violent past offences, I don't think there should be any discretion. You don't get a license, period."

The federal Firearms Act says only that a licensing decision "shall have regard to" an applicant's previous record of violence, or mental illness connected to violence. 

"The discretion was too broad if they could do this," said Irons.

However, retired OPP staff sergeant Doug Carlson said he believes that licensing decisions in cases like this should be a series of individual judgment calls. Carlson ran northwestern Ontario’s gun control system before his retirement. 

"Nothing's black and white, because there are so many variables out there. Every situation is different. And you just, you make your mind up when you ... look at the facts."

"A lot of things are just obvious as hell: certainly if somebody is committing murder, or any real, real violence."

Carlson said he would make a decision based on the facts in the file, and the conversation was more about communicating the decision, rather than informing the decision itself. 

"Basically, when you're talking to the guy, what he says really has very little to do with anything, because you've already made your mind up before you even talk to the guy — at least I did. You do your due diligence before you talk to the guy. You get all the facts in order so that you know you're talking about when you're interviewing them."

Carlson says that it is surprising that Pearson seems never to have been given a weapons prohibition order. 

"If the applicant triggers a 'fail' against one of the built-in eligibility criteria in (the Canadian Firearms Information System), their application will be assigned, through an automated process, to the CFO of the jurisdiction where the applicant resides for an investigative review," OPP spokesperson Bill Dickson explained in an email. 

"In determining the eligibility of an applicant, the Firearms Officer is governed by the principles laid out in section 5 of the (Firearms Act). Prior to July 2021, eligibility consideration was required and limited to the previous five years."

Dickson pointed to section 55 of the Firearms Act, which says the investigation " ... may consist of interviews with neighbours, community workers, social workers, individuals who work or live with the applicant, spouse or common-law partner, former spouse or former common-law partner, dependants," or anyone else who seems relevant. 





Patrick Cain

About the Author: Patrick Cain

Patrick is an online writer and editor in Toronto, focused mostly on data, FOI, maps and visualizations. He has won some awards, been a beat reporter covering digital privacy and cannabis, and started an FOI case that ended in the Supreme Court
Read more

Reader Feedback