Casefiles

The Port Arthur Massacre: Australia’s Worst Mass Shooting

On a bright summer’s afternoon the Port Arthur Historical Site in Tasmania, Australia was filled with over five hundred tourists. A local 29 year old by the name of Martin Bryant entered the site among the visitors, ate a meal in the café and then opened fire with a AR15 semi-automatic rifle.

Thirty-five people were killed that afternoon, with twenty-five injured. Bryant was captured after a stand-off with police at a local guest house and sentenced to thirty-five life sentences for his crime.

Australia had never seen this level of senseless gun violence and mass shooting in its history and reacted with understandable horror at the massacre. A national overhaul of gun legislation took place immediately, changing the gun laws to try and ensure this could never happen again.

Port Arthur in Tasmania is a historical site attracting thousands of visitors a year. In the middle of the 18th Century, Port Arthur was a penal colony housing convicted criminals. It was known as the inescapable prison due to is isolated position.

Port Arthur is located on a peninsula only accessible by boat which made it an ideal location for the penitentiary. It was a very harsh regime for prisoners there with up to 1’100 prisoners held at a time. Some experienced mental health problems due to the isolation and an asylum was built on the site in 1864 to accommodate them. It was closed as a prison in 1877 and has been maintained as a historic site and tourist attraction ever since.

Massacre at Port Arthur – 28th April 1996

On that spring day in April 1996, Martin Bryant arrived at the Port Arthur site and joined the other tourists trying to find somewhere to park on such a busy day. He went to the café on-site, the Broad Arrow, ordered a meal and sat and ate like any other tourist.

He did not stand out from the crowd, draw attention to himself or raise any suspicions. After finishing his meal outside, he went back into the café and unzipped his large holdall, producing an AR15 semi-automatic rifle and revealing further weapons, to the horror of visitors sitting nearby.

The Port Arthur Historical Site in Tasmania, Australia
The Port Arthur Historical Site in Tasmania, Australia

Bryant opened fire within the café and adjoining gift shop, randomly shooting anyone within his line of sight. Upon hearing the shots and assuming there was an electrical fault, a staff member made his way to the café. He entered the doorway and saw what was happening, recognizing the young man at the centre of the scene as a visitor he had recently guided in and advised on where to park. Fleeing the café, he herded as many visitors as possible together and away from the café and the danger. Bryant left the café and continued to fire outside any anyone he saw. He followed tourists onto coaches where they had tried to hide and continued to fire.

He returned to his car and left the site, stopping to shoot a woman and her two children who were trying to flee. They had feared staying with a large group would be more dangerous than trying to make it alone. Bryant continued his spree of violence, shooting and killing occupants of car at the entrance to the site and killing a women and taking her partner hostage, along with their car, at a nearby service station. He then returned the guest house he had checked into earlier that day, Seascape, setting fire to the vehicle outside.

An 18-Hour Police Stand-Off

Police by this time had raced to the Port Arthur site after receiving reports of a terrible shooting. En-route they spotted the burning car and connected the events, stopping at the guest house to investigate. Bryant fired at the police officers from inside the property, forcing them to take cover in a ditch, where they remained trapped for many hours.

Bryant held police in a stand-off for 18 hours, going through the night and into the morning of the 29th April. While trained negotiators tried to talk to him via telephone, they struggled to make headway and bring the situation to a peaceful conclusion. Bryant did not have any demands or appear to fully acknowledge the events of previous hours. Police were aware of one hostage, the male taken from the service station, and were concerned for the safety of Seascape’s owners, the Martins, who had not been seen or heard from since the previous day.

Bryant set fire to the guest house that morning and escaped the flames into the custody of waiting police when he began to suffer from burns himself. The owners of the guest house and the remaining hostage were all found dead inside Seascape later that morning. It is believed they were all killed before the fire started.

Gun Ownership and Mass Shootings

A gun in the wrong hands can be a devastating combination.  In recent years we have seen a number of mass shootings across the world.

  • The school shootings at Columbine High by Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold in 1999
  • The massacre at Ford Hood in Texas which saw army psychiatrist Major Nidal Hasan kill 12 and injury many more in 2009
  • The Norway attacks in 2011 where Anders Behring Breivik  killed 77 people though a bombing in Oslo and a mass shooting at a youth camp
  • The mass shooting in a movie theatre in Aurora, Colorado by James Holmes in 2012 which saw 12 people killed and over 70 others injured

There have been many many more less reported incidents involving mass shootings and with each occurrence concerns on gun laws are raised and debates unfold. The ownership of guns by citizens has been a long debated topic in recent years. The US in particular has a long history of gun ownership with an Economist and YouGov survey recently reporting almost 4 in 10 households in the US have a gun.

Equally the same survey found that 48% of Americans thought gun control laws should be more strict.  Other countries also show high levels of gun ownership. Switzerland for example, has high rates of guns, but little gun crime. They have tight gun laws where heavy machine guns and automatic weapons are banned and most buyers require an issued permit. Any criminal background, mental health or addiction problem will mean an application will be refused.

The tragedy at Port Arthur highlighted the need for a review of gun legislation within Australia. Concerns were raised on how Martin Bryant got hold of the guns, that he did not have a licence and was able to purchase the firearms so easily. At the time of the Port Arthur massacre, the Australian gun laws were considered too lenient. In the month after the massacre, a meeting was held by the Australian Police Ministers Council and a national plan was agreed to regulate firearms, fully supported by the then Prime Minister, John Howard.

Although some progress was already in place regarding gun law proposals, the insistence of John Howard after the Port Arthur shootings pushed legislation through very quickly. This included a ban on all semi-automatic rifles and much tougher laws on gun purchase and ownership. Furthermore, those who applied for a firearms license must complete a safety course and have justifiable reasons for wishing to own a firearm.

The massacre at Port Arthur was an incident where one individual caused devastating tragedy through the violent use of a gun. Thankfully, although they make the headlines, these incidents are still rare, however they highlight the need for control over the availability of such weapons that can be used in such a horrific way.

To cite this article: Guy, F. (2015, Jul 06) The Port Arthur Massacre: Australia’s Worst Mass Shooting. Crime Traveller. Retrieved from https://www.crimetraveller.org/2015/07/port-arthur-massacre/

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