Port Arthur.
Port Arthur. Contributed

1996: When Gympie became the face of national gun debate

AS THE Gympie region joined in mourning the nation's worst ever mass shooting at Port Arthur in 1996, debate on potential gun control restrictions was soon raging among opinionated locals.

Front pages were splashed with misery in the aftermath of the April 28 tragedy, when gunman Martin Bryant used self-loading and semi-automatic firearms to murder 35 people at the historical south-east Tasmania tourist site.

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CONTENTIOUS: A post-Port Arthur massacre story in The Gympie Times outlined local gun owner Ron Owen's opposition to proposed firearm bans nationwide.
CONTENTIOUS: A post-Port Arthur massacre story in The Gympie Times outlined local gun owner Ron Owen's opposition to proposed firearm bans nationwide. Contributed

Front pages of The Gympie Times were covered with news and developments in the fallout of Australia's worst ever mass shooting at Port Arthur in 1996.
Front pages of The Gympie Times were covered with news and developments in the fallout of Australia's worst ever mass shooting at Port Arthur in 1996. Contributed

"Tragic massacre” headed The Gympie Times' April 30 front page, alongside detailed maps and a haunting image of the crime scene.

"At the scene of the massacre, the bodies of 20 of the dead, the first of those shot, remained where they were killed, some of them at the tables where they had sat eating their Sunday lunch at the Broad Arrow Cafe,” the lead article read.

"The shootings sparked renewed calls for gun law reform across the country and prompted the Tasmanian government to move almost immediately to tighten its relatively relaxed firearm legislation.

"Meanwhile, outpourings of grief were dominating all aspects of everyday life in Tasmania.

"In the streets of Hobart, groups of people stood on street corners in grief-stricken conversation and on radio, talk-back callers - even those who weren't directly involved in the tragedy - wept freely.”

Port Arthur massacre gunman Martin Bryant. (Contributed)
Port Arthur massacre gunman Martin Bryant. (Contributed) Various Sources

Ron Owen made his opinions known as local, state and federal governments discussed gun reforms following the massacre.
Ron Owen made his opinions known as local, state and federal governments discussed gun reforms following the massacre. Contributed

A local gun-reform argument soon ensued, with Gympie gun dealer Ron Owen expressing his opposition to proposed control measures in the same April 30 edition.

"Tight gun controls throughout Australia would only help create a defenceless population and would not prevent tragedies like the Port Arthur massacre,” Mr Owen was reported as saying.

He said he could not see how gun laws were "related in any degree” to the massacre, and that the massacre itself was a consequence of Australia's status as a "defenceless nation”.

"If just one of the victims had been armed they would have been able to stop him from killing so many people,” the report continued.

The Port Arthur site where 35 people were murdered on April 28, 1996.
The Port Arthur site where 35 people were murdered on April 28, 1996. Picasa 3.0

Discussion of a firearm buy-back plan was in full swing two weeks after the Port Arthur massacre.
Discussion of a firearm buy-back plan was in full swing two weeks after the Port Arthur massacre. Contributed

Mr Owen, the firearm owner's association federal president said he could "see some value” in a register banning certain individuals from owning guns, but declined to allow the Times to photograph either type of weapon involved in the massacre, claiming it would be "morbid”.

"We have a human right to defend ourselves,” he said.

His arguments soon reached state level, with then-Opposition leader Peter Beattie saying gun lobby "threats should not dissuade politicians from taking the toughest possible action to ensure people can walk the streets without fear of being gunned down”.

A majority of locals expressed support of potential bans in "Your Say” columns in the May 3 and May 10 editions, joining a chorus of voices coming from local, state and federal government levels.

The Gympie Times featured continued developments in the months following the massacre, including an October 1, 1997 front page on Cooloola's gun owners crowding Gympie Police Station to surrender restricted weapons as a result of the national buy-back scheme.

Gympie Times


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