In 1996 Australia suffered the deadliest mass shooting in its history; 35 people gunned down in the popular tourist spot of Port Arthur in Tasmania.
The Australian government’s response was tough. Strict and highly successful new gun laws that have been highlighted by activists in the US as a possible way forward there after the recent killings at a Florida school.
So given the sensitivity, proposals by Tasmania’s ruling Liberal government to ease firearms laws as it headed into Saturday’s state elections created a fierce debate.
Not least because of how apparently low-key the Liberals had kept the plans; laying them out in a letter to a firearms consultation group but not posting them on the party website.
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State Minister for Police, Fire and Emergency Management Rene Hidding wrote the letter in early February but the contents only became known on the eve of the election.
The Liberals have now been returned with a majority, their opponents have conceded defeat, but the controversy over the gun issue is unlikely to go away.
Roland Browne from Gun Control Australia told ABC the Liberals “need to be putting this policy forward well before an election and debating it”, arguing it went against the National Firearms Agreement (NFA), which was brought in after Port Arthur.
“It’s a move against the NFA, which makes Tasmania a national embarrassment.”
Federal Opposition Leader Bill Shorten accused Tasmania Premier Will Hodgman of “backroom deals”.
“Gun laws shouldn’t be the subject of last-minute bargaining to chase a few votes,” he said.
So what has been proposed? The main areas appear to be:
- Extending the gun licence duration from five to 10 years
- Ending the mandatory removal of a weapon for minor breaches of storage
- Discussions on allowing more users of Category C firearms, potentially giving sports shooters access to rapid-fire and pump-action shotguns
- Discussions on creating a new category to allow “certain specialists” to use banned guns
Mr Hodgman was adamant the proposals were not a watering down of the NFA and denied there had been any attempt at concealment.
“Key stakeholders or those with an interest in this have been advised, it’s publicly available,” he told ABC Radio.
Rene Hidding also insisted he was a strong supporter of the NFA and said the plans “won’t do anything which is inconsistent” with them.
What happened at Port Arthur and afterwards?
On 28 April, 1996, 28-year-old Martin Bryant killed the two elderly owners of a Port Arthur guesthouse. He later entered the Broad Arrow Cafe and shot dead 22 people.
The killing spree continued in the car park, before Bryant drove back to the guesthouse. After an 18-hour standoff he set it on fire and was captured outside.
In total, 35 people were murdered. His trial was told of intellectual disabilities and a low IQ. He changed his plea to guilty and was sentenced to life in prison. He remains in the Wilfred Lopes Centre.
After the killings, Australia banned all semi-automatic rifles and all semi-automatic and pump-action shotguns. A strict system of licensing and ownership was introduced. There have been no such killing sprees since.
Some commentators in the US have highlighted Australia’s response to the Port Arthur shooting as a template for action in the US.
Farming groups have backed the Liberals’ plans.
Peter Skillern, of the Tasmanian Farmers and Graziers Association, said there was “nothing in these proposals that would in any shape or form diminish community safety”.
And just how much the gun control issue played in the minds of voters is unclear. The Liberals campaigned primarily on jobs and the economy,
Many commentators also pointed to Labor’s proposals to remove poker machines – “pokies” – from clubs and pubs as a defining issue.