As Tasmania marks the 25th anniversary of the Port Arthur massacre, Dr Bryan Walpole discusses the tragedy and the gun control reforms that changed Australia forever.
On Sunday 28 April 1996, Bryan Walpole was returning home from work as an emergency doctor at the Royal Hobart Hospital and received a call.
“They said I needed to return at once. Nobody knew what we were receiving, but at that stage, the evidence was that it was something pretty big,” he said.
Thirty-five people were killed and another 23 were injured when a shooter opened fire at the Port Arthur Historic Site. It was the deadliest single-perpetrator shooting in Australian history and resulted in an overhaul of the nation’s gun laws.
“The whole state was in quite a degree of shock,” Dr Walpole said.
“First because it happened, but second because wed become the subject of international media attention. We had CNN, NBC, BBC all with vans parked outside the hospital.”
Dr Walpole’s medical career was defined by gun violence. In the late 1970s, he was working in emergency medicine at a Melbourne hospital when a young woman was brought in with a gunshot wound to her groin.
The mother-of-two had been accidentally shot by a neighbour who had been practising shooting in his backyard and later died.
“This man had 15 high powered guns and that set me thinking that it just cant be right that suburban people have guns,” Dr Walpole said.
Together with colleagues and friends at the Australian Medical Association, Dr Walpole began developing a gun-reform policy.
We had that policy sitting there, and every time there was a massacre, wed pull it out, but because gun control was a state issue, we couldnt get any traction,” he said.
“The day after Port Arthur, the Tasmanian premier called me [and a colleague] into his office. I gave him a copy of that policy and it turned out to be the basis of [then prime minister] John Howard’s gun control reform.”
Twelve days after the massacre, Australia changed its gun laws with the National Firearms Agreement. The reforms dramatically changed who could access firearms. Almost all semi-automatic and automatic guns would not be legally available to the general public again.
Mr Howard said he faced opposition from small sections of the community.
“The bulk of the population wanted the changes, they were horrified at 35 people having been killed by one person,” he said.
“We never thought those things could happen in our country, but they did.”
In 1997, the year after the Port Arthur massacre, Australia had 6.52 licensed firearm owners per 100 people, according to data from the University of Sydney. By 2020, it had almost halved to 3.41.
‘Laws are vulnerable’
Rebecca Peters is an international gun control expert, and one of the driving forces behind changing Australia’s gun laws after the massacre.
Twenty-five years on from the tragedy, she said Australians don’t need to worry as much now about gun safety.
“A lot of people, especially young people, dont realise that there was a time where we had mass shootings in Australia, and that’s good, we don’t want people to worry about gun violence,” she said.
“But the fact they dont think about it means that the laws are vulnerable to being eroded while no one is watching.”
Mr Howard said in the 25 years since the National Firearms Agreement, Australia’s states and territories had not significantly altered their gun laws.
“I don’t think any state government would be game to bring about change – and not that I am suggesting they want to – but I think the public is so convinced that these changes helped, that they would be outraged if there was any serious attempt made to weaken them.”
The 25th anniversary of the massacre is being marked with a small commemoration at the historic site.
In a statement, Prime Minister Scott Morrison paid tribute to the victims and those who were impacted by the massacre.
“It still seems like only yesterday our hearts were shattered on that terrible Sunday,” he said.
“Victims as young as three and as old as 72. Among them ‘a lovely, devoted couple’. ‘The happiest girls in the world’. An ‘adored Nanna’. A ‘humble man’ who ‘simply wanted to serve’. And a woman who ‘brought joy and warmth to all who knew her.'”
“Today we remember and send our love to all those who still bear the scars of that terrible day.”