The Sunday Mail (Queensland)

Show spine of 1996 and defend gun laws

- WWHHIINNNN­EETTTT ellen.whinnett@news.com.au

I have been subjected to ongoing harassment and disgusting behaviours by some members of the community, one person saying, ‘you would be better off dead with your husband’

IN 1996, politician­s from across Australia showed real leadership and committed to the National Firearms Agreement, a 10-point plan to strip semiautoma­tic and self-loading firearms out of the community.

Tragically, the leadership came too late to save the 35 people killed by a lone gunman armed with a military rifle who shot them at close range at the Port Arthur penal colony in Tasmania on Sunday, April 28 that year.

Nonetheles­s, state and territory leaders displayed courage by doing the right thing, even though they knew it would infuriate the powerful shooters’ lobby and alienate ordinary citizens who had never done anything wrong and were upset at losing legitimate­ly held weapons.

The greatest political courage of all was shown by then-prime minister, Liberal John Howard, and his then-deputy, Nationals leader Tim Fischer, who drove the states to adopt the firearms agreement despite it disproport­ionately affecting conservati­ve Coalition voters.

A quarter of a century later, the agreement, signed with such hope and good faith in those dark days after Port Arthur, has done its job in stopping mass shootings. It has taken large-calibre, rapid-fire guns out of the community.

But the agreement has never been fully implemente­d. Either in legislatio­n, or in the way the laws are interprete­d, rules vary between states. The legislatio­n remains under constant attack from the shooters’ lobby. It seems some are treating Port Arthur as a distant event which we’ve moved on from, and the decisions taken then by politician­s acting in the national interest should be disregarde­d.

This is wrong.

As a young journalist working in Tasmania on that autumn Sunday in 1996, I was one of the first reporters at the scene. It remains a very real, traumatic event for the people of Tasmania and for the families of the people killed, and 20 more who were shot but survived.

Every adult in Tasmania remembers where they were when they heard about Port Arthur. I was working in Northern Tasmania covering a fatal car crash.

With a photograph­er, we got to Port Arthur as fast as a light plane and hire car would take us.

I remember the convoy of ambulances, winding its way slowly along the road out of the tourist site as we drove towards the scene. No cars coming the other way, just a line of ambulances, carrying the dead and injured to Hobart. I remember the profound shock the survivors were suffering as they drove out through the roadblocks in the early hours of the next morning.

Some slugged wine, struggling to hold the bottles with shaking hands. A pregnant woman vomiting. Tears and disbelief.

The years of pain afterwards, as the community struggled to decide how to respond to the massacre, whether the Broad Arrow Cafe should be torn down or kept as a memorial, and how best to allow emotional wounds to heal. I remember how you could see the reflection of Port Arthur gunman Martin Bryant’s house in the glass doors of the gun shop down the road in New Town where he bought his deadly weapons.

Unlike the US, Australian­s have no right enshrined in our constituti­on to own a gun. Almost no one in this country has the need to own and operate a rapid-fire weapon, designed as a killing machine.

And there is no doubt Australia’s gun culture, or at least the public face of it, has changed in 25 years.

I grew up in regional Tasmania. People had guns. When my country high school decided our drama class would perform the World War II-era play Tokyo Rose at the local memorial hall back in the ’ 80s, some kids brought in real rifles to be used in our marching scenes. This would be unthinkabl­e now. But the gun laws remain under attack. One of the most blatant and disgracefu­l efforts to undermine them was proposed, of all places, in Tasmania prior to the 2018 election.

Then-police minister Rene Hidding wrote to a firearms consultati­on group weeks before the election – a letter not revealed publicly until the day before the polls – promising to soften the laws by, among other things, extending gun licenses from five years to 10 years, allowing some farmers to use silencers, and getting rid of the provision which saw firearms automatica­lly removed from people who failed to properly secure them. Hidding, who said he was seeking to assist farmers with pest control, also promised to ask the national police ministers to allow more sporting shooters access to pump-action and rapid-fire guns.

The then-Liberal premier Will Hodgman crab-walked away from the offer and the changes were thankfully never implemente­d.

On March 15, 2019, came the awful news that a lone gunman had murdered 51 worshipper­s at two mosques in Christchur­ch.

The gunman would never have been able to obtain those guns in Australia under our laws, but tragically was able to do so, legally, in New Zealand. But he was one of ours, born and raised here. Without our laws, it could have happened here.

Every politician in Australia coming under pressure from the shooters’ lobby to water down our world-leading firearms laws needs only to look at our close neighbours and friends across the ditch to see the tragic result of loose gun laws.

Or they can look in their hearts and find some of the courage showed by their political predecesso­rs 25 years ago and work to make our laws better.

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