SYDNEY, Australia – Most Australians would remember where they were when they first heard something bad was going on at Port Arthur.
I was walking through the common room at my university residential college and there was a group glued to the old picture tube television in the corner -- strange for daylight hours.
Scraps of information were seeping out from the windswept historical site on the southern shore of Tasmania, not far from the bottom of the world and already stalked by the ghosts of its brutal penal colony past.
No one was Tweeting. Social media barely existed. Mobile phones were a luxury and spots as remote as Port Arthur had no coverage anyway.
A gunman was on the loose. Five, ten, 15 people shot. Preposterous numbers that just kept growing.
Local police scrambled down the narrow road in, unaware what horror they approached. In the end the toll from ‘the Port Arthur Massacre,’ as it’s etched into Australian vernacular, was 35 dead and 23 injured.
April 28, 1996. Twenty years next year.
It’s sometimes cheap to say an event changed a nation -- but Port Arthur changed Australia.
A whole generation of young Australians is now coming of age having never borne witness to a mass shooting in their own country.
They don’t remember Port Arthur because they weren’t born when a 28-year-old with a low IQ stalked through a tourist attraction picking off innocent men, women and children with high-powered weaponry for reasons none of us will ever fathom.
Young adults who have graduated high school, can vote, drive and legally drink alcohol (in Australia the drinking age is 18) have never walked on to campus fearing the weirdo from their economics tutorial might turn out to be a gun nut with a death wish.
Eighteen- and 19-year-old Australians have a luxury they don’t even recognize. Huffington Post Australia spent time on the campus of Sydney University asking about the threat of gun crime.
The responses (see above video) speak for themselves.
Tim Jackson, 21, summed it up: “It hasn’t happened in Australia now for nearly 20 years so to me I don’t think there’s a particular risk of it happening to any of us.”
As the full-scale horror of what had unfolded at Port Arthur dawned on shocked Australians a refrain Americans would be well familiar with rang out -- ‘never again’.
The gunman -- to this day holed up in a Tasmanian prison serving 35 life sentences had used two semi-automatic rifles, which he claimed to have bought from a dealer with no license.
John Howard had only very recently been elected Prime Minister, leading a coalition government with the conservative rural National Party. Ask him now what he considers the greatest achievement of his 11-year administration, he invariably answers ‘gun control.’
With the passing of nearly two decades it might start to appear radically overhauling Australia’s gun laws was easy.
The legal administration of guns in Australia was a state, not federal, issue. The new prime minister had to corral the premiers of six diverse states into banning the military-style weapons not considered crucial to the agricultural sector.
The debate reached its climax when Howard appeared at a rally in rural Victoria wearing what appeared to be body armor under his jacket.
In a nation where the PM’s ‘motorcade’ is a single trailing sedan, the image shocked many and offended others -- not least the participants at the rally who felt unfairly maligned.
Howard has said since it was the wrong decision to wear it, telling an interviewer last year, “I never actually felt frightened... it sent the wrong signal.”
But grasping the momentum of ‘never again,’ The National Firearms Agreement banned semi-automatic rifles and shotguns and pump-action shotguns, and brought in rigid licensing arrangements. An amnesty was declared and the federal government spent $AUD 500 million -- paid for by a special levy -- on buying back weapons suddenly ruled illegal for their market value.
Nearly 1 million guns were purchased by the government and destroyed.
All firearms in Australia must be registered to a licensed owner and stored under strict conditions, separate to ammunition. Obtaining a gun license is onerous, and requires background checks that can take months.
The Queensland premier Rob Borbidge paid with his career. The conservative then-leader of Australia’s most conservative state put his political neck on the line for gun safety and lost government at the next election.
In 2013, he told John Oliver: “I was prepared to face the political consequences and we delivered gun control. We paid a high political price but we did the right thing.
“There are Australians alive today because we took that action. How much is a life worth?”
No laws are perfect. The Australian Crime Commission estimates there are probably 250,000 illegal long-arms in Australia, and 10,000 illegal handguns.
The pump-action shotgun used in the 2014 Lindt Cafe siege in Sydney was believed to be one of them.
You can never really say ‘never.’ But you can envy those 18- and 19-year-olds roaming university campuses across Australia never having had to contemplate they might be next.
Video produced by Amber Ferguson and Christine Conetta in the U.S. and Tom Compagnoni and Josh Butler in Australia.
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