28 April 1996
TVC has friends who were honeymooning in Tasmania on the above date. That morning, they had a lovers’ tiff: she wanted to go to Port Arthur, the pretty but desolate and spine-tingling remnants of early convict settlement, vividly recounted in Richard Flanagan’s Gould’s Book of Fish (although that is set elsewhere in Tasmania). Her beau, however, thought they should take advantage of the mild weather to climb picturesque Cradle Mountain, and his argument prevailed.
It’s the kind of argument where you can never say ‘I told you so.’ For that day, a young (28 year old), well-to-do, very stupid man named Martin Bryant, changed the nation forever. That day, at Port Arthur, he murdered 35 people and wounded 24 others. He became a star!
We don’t really care about his motives, or lack of motives: it simply won’t do. To date, it is the third biggest ‘bag’ for a lone gunman in recorded history. Bryant was a lunatic carrying an armalite rifle and a semi-automatic weapon. How come?
The previous month, John Howard became Australia’s 25th Prime Minister. A hard conservative warrior, his core constituency included law-abiding folks who used guns on the land or enjoyed shooting as a sport. The States controlled gun laws, not the Federal Government. Yet the sheer outrage evoked by the crime galvanised him to act.
Howard decided to implement – and forced through – “a ban on automatic and semiautomatic rifles and shotguns and a nationwide approach to registration and licensing…”* There was also a federally-funded gun ‘buy-back’. It was, in some ways, an act of great political courage. Whether it has worked in the long run, who can say? And Howard himself concedes that his policy hurt the innocent gun user. But we haven’t had a Bryant since and that’s a start.