Shortcuts / 28 April 2021

The Port Arthur Massacre

It’s the 25th anniversary of the Port Arthur massacre, the worst single-person mass shooting in Australia’s history and a tragedy that left 35 people dead. In this edition of Squiz Shortcuts we’ll take you through the background to that dark day, the gun law reforms that followed, and where that sits today.

Remind me where Port Arthur is?
Port Arthur is a former penal settlement on the Tasman Peninsula – it’s less than 100km southeast of Hobart. When convict transportation stopped in 1853, there were fewer arrivals, but Port Arthur kicked on, and all these years later, it’s one of Australia’s most notable tourist destinations with its 30-odd historic buildings and ruins.

And for the last 25 years, it’s also a town connected to a tragedy…
It is. On 28 April 1996, lone gunman Martin Bryant went on a shooting rampage using semi-automatic weapons that he’d bought without a licence. He killed 35 people, including 4 children, injured 23 more and left many more traumatised.

Back it up a bit. Who is this guy?
In 1996, Bryant was 28yo and living in New Town, a suburb in Hobart. He’d shown signs of intellectual impairment throughout his childhood, and experts later said there were signs of autism. Due to behavioural issues, he was taken out of school just before his 16th birthday.

Fast forward a few years
… and Bryant befriended 54yo Helen Harvey, a lottery heiress, who hired him to do some odd jobs and gardening around her property. He eventually went to live in her home in an affluent part of Hobart. Five years later, she died in a car accident, and there was some speculation that Bryant had caused the crash. He ended up in hospital for 7 months, but he inherited $550,000 from Harvey’s estate.

Then another significant event happened…
Bryant’s father took his own life. Bryant inherited his father’s $250,000 superannuation fund and some property. That gave him a healthy kitty to travel overseas, which he did extensively between 1993-95.

What happened after he returned home?
He was depressed, and he became fascinated by the massacre of 16 schoolchildren in the Scottish township of Dunblane in March 1996. Just a few weeks later, Bryant packed two semi-automatic rifles, a 12-gauge shotgun and hundreds of rounds of ammunition and drove to the Seascape Cottage, a guest house by the water on the Tasman Peninsula.

Why’d he pick that location?
Bryant’s father had previously tried to purchase the B&B, but owners Sally and David Martin got in first. Bryant apparently believed the Martins had deliberately bought the property to hurt his family.

And that’s when he started the killing spree?
Yes, shortly after he arrived at the cottage, he murdered the Martins. He then drove a few minutes down the road to Port Arthur, where he went into the Broad Arrow Cafe, ordered and ate breakfast, and then shot up the cafe and adjoining gift shop. Within 2 minutes, 20 people were dead.

And it didn’t stop there, did it?
No. After leaving the cafe, Bryant killed 4 more people and wounded 11 others in the car park. He then killed a mother and her two young daughters and 4 more people as he passed the site’s toll booth before stealing a car and transferring his guns and ammunition. He then shot a woman at a petrol station before taking a man hostage. Bryant then returned to Seascape, where he took his hostage inside and held an overnight siege at the guest house.

What did the police do?
They surrounded the inn and tried unsuccessfully to negotiate with Bryant, who shot at them throughout the night. He later killed his hostage and set fire to the guesthouse. He was captured and was treated in hospital for burns he received while trying to escape.

And then he was before the justice system?
Yes, and court proceedings progressed quickly – that was helped along when Bryant pleaded guilty to the massacre. In November 1996, he was given 35 sentences without the possibility of parole.

Where is he now?
Serving his time in Hobart’s Risdon Prison, where reports say he remains in solitary confinement and his immediate family are the only ones allowed to visit.

So my recollection is that PM of the day John Howard moved quickly on gun law reform?
He did – helped along by cooperation from the states and territories. That was required because while the federal government could legislate against the importation of automatic and semi-automatic guns, the states/territories are the ones who regulate who and how gun ownership works.

But everyone was on board?
At the government level. But the reform agenda didn’t receive universal support from voters – including in rural and regional areas. Governments across the board received quite a bit of blowback. Howard said that he accepted the anger from voters who felt betrayed but remained firm in believing that it was the right thing to do.

Long story short, where did that leave things?
So 12 days after the massacre, the National Firearms Agreement (NFA) was signed by government leaders across the country. It saw automatic and semi-automatic weapons banned. It also introduced other limitations, making it more difficult to get a gun license, requiring all firearms to be registered and banning silencers. The government also brought in a federally financed gun buyback scheme, and almost 700,000 guns were surrendered to authorities and destroyed.

Has it made a difference?
Big time, according to academics. Those at Sydney Uni say it has resulted in a steep decline in mass shootings and intentional firearm deaths since the reforms were introduced.

Let the numbers do the talking…
Since 1996, there have been 3 mass shootings – 2 were when men killed their family members, the other was a shooting spree in Darwin in 2019. By contrast, in the 25 years before 1996, 113 people had died in 14 mass shootings. There has also been a steep decline in gun-related homicides and suicides.

Great, so that fixed that?
No way, Jose. Consider this: in 2017, there were an estimated 3.6 million firearms in Australia, compared with 3.2 million in 1996. And while reports say that the number of licensed firearm owners fell between 1997 and 2016, each owner now has more firearms – about 4 guns each.

But the laws are still rock-solid, yes?
Put it this way: the important provisions of the National Firearms Agreement remain intact, but no state or territory fully complies. So there’s room for improvement.

Give me an example…
One is the licencing age – despite the agreement stating all applicants for a firearm licence must be at least 18 years of age, every state and territory allows minors to possess and use firearms. There are also a number of measures that have not yet materialised, including a national gun registry that would keep a nationwide record of firearms and their owners.

So what’s being done about it?
Not much at the moment… Independent Senator Rex Patrick, for one, calls it a “striking failure”. And former PM John Howard has also appealed to the states and territories not to drop the ball on gun laws.

Squiz recommends:
Reading: An opinion piece former Prime Minister John Howard wrote in 2013, calling on US President Barack Obama to follow his model on gun laws.

Watching: John Oliver’s humorous but sharp series into Australia’s gun laws showing American’s that it can be done. Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.

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