Time flies but tomorrow is the 20th Anniversary of the Port Arthur Massacre. I was there not long after this tragedy and have been there since. Times chance. AS do opinions. I will try and add current items that reflect back on the day and folks who see it different.
Dealing with the Port Arthur massacre, 20 years on
April 24, 2016
A church at the Port Arthur historical site seen from within the government cottage. Photo: Mark Kolbe
On a sunny April Thursday, Port Arthur is not so much a picture as the full photo album: glistening harbour, immaculate lawns ringed by towering gums, and half-fallen-down ruins that have survived to tell their extraordinary penal colony history.
The 19th century saga of hard labour, solitary confinement and the lash is comprehensively explained, in detail and with some humour, by guides and in curated displays.
But if you’re younger than 25 or have been hermetically sealed off from Australian history for the past 20 years, it’s possible to visit and remain oblivious to its more recent horror.
The penitentiary at Port Arthur.
The memorial garden dedicated to the 35 people murdered at the site on April 28, 1996 – then the world’s worst mass murder by a lone gunman – is spare, beautiful and, if you don’t know what you’re looking for, easy to miss.
Shielded from the rest of the site by a row of native trees, it includes a reflection pool and the gutted shell of the Broad Arrow Cafe, where 20 people were killed in less than two minutes.
There is little signage, just the names of the dead on an elegant wooden cross, repeated on a stone, and some engraved poetry by the late Tasmanian writer Margaret Scott. A small plaque at one entrance has a short statement about the “devastating violent crime”. There are few details and the gunman is not named.
Stephen Large, chief executive of the Port Arthur Historic Site Management Authority. Photo: Scott Gelston
As a place of quiet reflection, the minimalist approach works. The garden is deeply moving. But the discretion is not just an aesthetic choice. It is also a response to the needs of the historic site’s nearly 200 staff, and the local community.
For 20 years, Port Arthur has struggled with how best to explain and mourn its modern-day history while straddling competing demands – protecting the deeply traumatised and informing the visiting public, who are often as curious and clueless about the massacre as they are about the convict experience.
Mostly, the site’s management has put the people of Port Arthur – many of whom lost family members or friends and had their lives forever changed – first.
Maria Stacey, Port Arthur historic site employee at the remains of the Broad Arrow Cafe in the site’s memorial garden. Photo: Scott Gelston
That low-key approach has been jolted in recent weeks by television specials and an influx of journalists. Next week, there will be the arrival of hundreds of guests and dignitaries, including prime ministers past and present, for a 20th anniversary memorial service. It has thrust the small community back into the national spotlight in a way, some locals say, it has not been since the immediate aftermath of the massacre.
For some victims’ families and survivors, the service is a necessary recognition – and hopefully another part of a healing process. It tells them their loved ones mattered, and will not be forgotten.
For others, the national spotlight is re-opening wounds.
Stephen Large, Port Arthur Historic Site Management Authority chief executive, at the remains of the Broad Arrow Cafe. Photo: Scott Gelston
What is it like for a small community that continues to deal with the fallout – in post-traumatic illness, broken relationships and suicide – to again be made the face of an event so appalling that many would prefer to never speak of it?
Maria Stacey is one of a small handful of staff still working on the historic site from 20 years ago.
Now the site’s visitor services manager, she says the anniversary is a time of mixed emotions for people across the Tasman Peninsula that surrounds Port Arthur.
Roseanne Heyward, Tasman Council mayor, at Port Arthur. Photo: Scott Gelston
“There have certainly been comments in the community made that you should just be forgetting about it,” Stacey says.
“I have a good friend who lost a daughter, and she was confronted by a woman in the street who was saying just that to her: ‘How awful it is that it is being dragged up, that you must feel awful about the service’. And my friend said, ‘I’d feel more dreadful if there wasn’t something, if it wasn’t remembered’.
“That is what it is like – there are all sorts of different camps.”
The penitentiary building ruins, Port Arthur, part of the area’s history. Photo: Getty Images
Reading the wishes of the community, the initial instinct of local authorities was similar to that of the woman in the street.
Stephen Large, chief executive of the Port Arthur Historic Site Management Authority, gave an interview in 2006 in which he said the 10th anniversary commemoration – with then prime minister John Howard as keynote speaker – would be the last on that scale. Since then, the moment has been marked quietly with the laying of a wreath and a minute’s silence.
That plan held up until about nine months ago, when Large became aware of an expectation that there would be something more this year.
“I was contacted by a man who lost a close relative and wasn’t ready to come to the 10th [anniversary],” he says. “He was pretty incensed when we said we weren’t going to have anything, so we contacted some people who were closely affected and without exception they all said it would be a travesty if we didn’t have a service,” Large said.
“In hindsight, it really wasn’t up to us or the [Tasmanian] government to make that decision, it’s more for the people closely affected. It was pretty powerful stuff, so we made a decision really quickly.”
The demand for a service was particularly strong from affected people not from the local district. The message for those who would prefer it wasn’t happening has been gentle. As Stacey put it: “If people don’t want to attend, they don’t have to, but we decided it would happen for those who wanted it.”
Large believes media interest in the massacre far outstrips that of a decade ago. Why?
Perhaps the massacre was fresher in the national mind then, and people didn’t need or want reminding. The 10th anniversary service was also competing for attention with the Beaconsfield mine disaster, which was unfolding.
The recent push by pro-gun lobbyists to allow the use of the Adler A110 lever-action shotgun has helped thrust Port Arthur back into public consciousness. Howard has countered that the laws he brought in after the massacre should be strengthened, not weakened.
Whatever the reason, it has been a confronting time for those forced to re-live the past.
Channel Seven’s Sunday Night, in particular, distressed locals by filming an actor with long blonde hair portraying the murderer, Martin Bryant, driving a yellow Volvo with a surfboard strapped to the roof near the historic site.
A woman living nearby assumed the production a crew were shooting a tourism film, and invited them on to her property for a better shot. She was stunned when she saw the Volvo doing laps outside her house. The re-enactment was later screened alongside previously unseen video of the police interview with Bryant.
Large was horrified. “Channel Seven was the first [program] that came out and it did rock a lot of people, and turn a lot of community members against doing anything,” he says.
“I think they misrepresented to us what they were going to do in terms of filming on the site. We knew nothing about the police interview, and they certainly didn’t say anything about the Volvo with the blonde man.
“I guess after that people got nervous and a bit disturbed that the media was going to just take us all back there.”
To understand why this is such an issue, consider what seeing even a historic photo of Bryant means for locals, let alone catching sight of what looks like the killer driving outside your house.
Psychologist Rob Gordon, who worked on the recovery program after the massacre and returned to Port Arthur last month to speak with survivors, says being re-exposed to images or emotions such as those on Sunday Night can reactivate the trauma for those who were there.
“I was also incredibly disappointed by the recreation on [the ABC’s] Australian Story,” he says. “It’s the ghoul factor – people who haven’t had trauma like to be stimulated by others’ extreme experiences – or at least Channel Seven thinks they do. But the graphic recreations are incredibly disturbing to people who were directly involved because it collapses the time scale between now and then.”
Roseanne Heyward, the mayor of the local Tasman Council, backs this up. “When they show all that – when they show actual footage that was taken on the day, when they see that man’s face and they see the shots being fired – it brings it all back,” Heyward says.
“Someone who has there on the day said to me: ‘When I see that, I can taste and feel that feeling that I had when I was there’. And [the anniversary] is not about that man. It’s about remembering the people that were injured and died, and the people that were left behind.”
Gordon says commemorative services can be important for survivors because they place the massacre as a historical part of their life story and allow it to recede into the past. It can help make some sense of what they have been through.
“The notion of recovery doesn’t mean getting back to the way things were before, because they’re never going to be the same again. The whole task of recovery is about establishing a new world, a new order, a new normality,” Gordon says.
“Sadly, there is often very little understanding of that amongst people whose friends and family haven’t experienced trauma.”
In the early days, after Bryant pleaded guilty and when nearly everyone at Port Arthur was in a deep state of trauma, visitors who asked about the shooting were given a booklet with the full transcript of his Supreme Court sentence hearing.
After a couple of years a decision was made to pull back, out of respect to the survivors and staff. By then, travel guides such as Lonely Planet were advising visitors not to ask questions about the shooting. Those who did ask were quietly given a new, less detailed, brochure.
A decade-and-a-half on, that approach largely remains. Guided tours now include a brief nod in the direction of the former Broad Arrow Cafe, but little more.
Stacey says some visitors to the site react angrily to the lack of information, but there has been good reason for it.
“The reality is we still have people who work here who were there on the day at the time of the shooting,” she says. “There are also people who came to work here soon afterwards, and even people who came weeks and months and years after who are affected by what happened,” Stacey says.
“Out of courtesy to them in the workplace, we really don’t want them to be asked questions that might cause them to burst into tears.”
But she supports Large’s view that the Port Arthur community is ready for a different approach, and that it is time to tell the story of 1996 in greater depth. Large says: “We’ve got to recognise that it’s now part of the site’s history, as unfortunate an incident as it was, and I think one of the things we’re looking at over the next 12 months after the anniversary is over is how we can do that better.”
The Tasman Peninsula was hit hard in the years after the attack. The historic site – the region’s biggest employer by some distance – was closed for an extended period after the shooting and when it first reopened a spooked public stayed away. The local economy crashed, businesses closed. Many people moved away.
But in recent years there has been recovery. Visitor numbers at the site have been propelled to record levels on the back of world heritage listing in 2010, and the surge in tourists coming to Tasmania following the opening of David Walsh’s Museum of Old and New Art. The creation of the 68-kilometre Three Capes bushwalking track through nearby pristine wilderness has brought a new type of visitor to the area. Earlier this month it was announced a luxury resort would be built behind the historic site, reflecting increased demand.
Gordon talks about the need to create a new, positive story to help deal with trauma, and this is what the peninsula has been doing.
As mayor, Heyward says there is a good story to tell, beyond the glare of the coming week.
“Hopefully after the service is done we can get back to our lives, there will be no more calls from the media and we can move on,” she says.
“Who knows what will happen in 10 years time? I definitely won’t be saying we won’t be doing this again. But it is only a part of who we are.”
Port Arthur massacre
1996: Port Arthur massacre leads to tighter gun laws
On 28 April 1996, 35 people lost their lives and at least 18 more were injured when a lone gunman went on a shooting rampage in Port Arthur, Tasmania.
Within four months of the tragedy, the recently elected conservative coalition government under John Howard had orchestrated a tightening of Australia’s state and territory gun laws, which are now some of the strictest in the world.
More on the Port Arthur massacre
Anonymous, ‘35 reasons why our leaders must act’, Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 2 May 1996:
Gentlemen, the people of Australia are weary of the gun debate. In Tasmania, 35 people are dead because a killer was able to arm himself with a semi-automatic rifle. Your responsibility is to make it illegal to own these guns, illegal to be in possession of them, illegal to obtain the bullets they fire. All this is within your power and the public demands nothing less.
A terrible tragedy
On Sunday 28 April 1996, Martin Bryant, a young Hobart man, went on a shooting rampage in and around Port Arthur, an historic site and major tourist destination in south-east Tasmania. The massacre left 35 people dead and many injured and traumatised.
Using semi-automatic weapons that he had bought without a licence, Bryant had perpetrated one of the most deadly civilian mass shootings in the world to date. Australia, as a nation, was shocked to the core.
Australian firearms laws
The Australian Government only has the power to make legislation relating to the importation of firearms into the country. Laws concerning private gun ownership are state based and, in 1996, varied greatly. There were different rules about licensing and background checks as well as the types of guns people could use.
In the wake of the Port Arthur massacre, both gun-control and pro-gun lobbyists came out in force. Those in favour of gun control used not only Port Arthur but also mass shootings and firearm-related homicides and suicides from the two previous decades to illustrate the need for tighter and uniform legislation across the country.
Pro-gun groups were vehemently against the limiting of firearms rights for responsible owners and disliked the implication that guns themselves, rather than their misuse by small numbers of people, were to blame for violence.
Road to change
After the massacre, the recently elected Coalition federal government decided to work towards engaging the states and territories to enact identical gun laws. This move was an attempt to ensure there would never again be another event like Port Arthur in Australia.
The new legislation would involve a ban on firearms that are fully automatic, semi-automatic (such as those used at Port Arthur), pump-action and self-loading.
There would also be limitations on who could legally sell or supply weapons, minimum licensing and permit requirements, and more secure storage rules.
A mandatory ‘cooling-off’ period of 28 days before being granted a gun licence was implemented, as were the introduction of compulsory safety courses and the need to supply a ‘genuine reason’ for owning a firearm that could not include self-defence.
These measures were unpopular with many conservative state governments and were opposed by gun-owners, a large number of whom had voted for the Coalition due to its previous support of the gun lobby.
Prime Minister John Howard was publicly upbraided at pro-gun rallies across the country (especially when he appeared in Victoria in a bulletproof vest) and was seen by many conservatives to be bullying state governments into changing their laws. Others in the community, especially gun-control groups, were supportive of Howard’s decisive approach and his refusal to back down on the issue.
Over a tumultuous four months, Howard and his government convinced all states and territories to change their gun legislation to comply with the 1996 National Firearms Agreement (see link below).
A gun buyback and amnesty was initiated that allowed people to surrender newly banned weapons without legal consequences, with some people receiving payment funded by a Medicare levy as compensation. During the buyback, more than 700,000 firearms (both banned and legal) were surrendered to the police and destroyed. This represented a third of the guns that were estimated to be in the country at the time.
There have been no mass shootings in Australia since the terrible events of Port Arthur. The homicide rate involving firearms has greatly decreased, leading to a reduction in the number of homicide deaths in Australia overall. Gun-related suicide rates have also decreased since the 1996 legislative changes.
Website for the Alannah and Madeline Foundation, set up in memory of two victims of the massacre
Over our dead bodies: Port Arthur and Australia’s fight for gun control, Simon Chapman, Sydney University Press, 2013.
‘Rational Firearm Regulation: Evidence-based Gun Laws in Australia’, Rebecca Peters, in Reducing Gun Violence in America: Informing policy with evidence and analysis, Daniel Webster and Jon Vernick (eds), The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 2013.
‘The Big Melt: How one democracy changed after scrapping a third of its firearms’, Philip Alpers, in Reducing Gun Violence in America: Informing policy with evidence and analysis, Daniel Webster and Jon Vernick (eds), The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 2013.
‘Do Gun Buybacks Save Lives? Evidence from Panel Data’, Andrew Leigh and Christine Neill in American Law and Economics Review, Vol 12, No 2, pp 509–557, 2010.
The Port Arthur Massacre
Today we’re going to point the skeptical eye at a modern conspiracy theory, one that still stings sharply in the recent memories of Australians. In 1996, a young man from Hobart, 28-year-old Martin Bryant, loaded his car with guns and ammunition and went to the Port Arthur Historic Site, an old prison colony at the south end of the island of Tasmania. He killed 35 people and wounded 21 others, and was taken into custody after an overnight standoff and is currently serving a 1,035 year prison sentence without the possibility of parole.
For some, the Port Arthur massacre has become something like Australia’s version of the Kennedy assassination. Some believe that no one man could have accomplished so much bloodshed. So
me point to what they believe are discrepancies in the timelines of when Bryant is alleged to have been at various locations. Some believe the killings were too expert to have been done by anyone other than a trained killer. And finally, some believe that it was an elaborate conspiracy staged by the anti-gun lobby to provoke public sentiment. Many of the believers consider this to be evidence that the government wanted to terrorize the citizenry into banning all firearms, so that they might be able to exercise unchallenged tyranny. Such conspiracy theorists describe the event as a “psyop”, a psychological operation by the government.
It should be fairly noted that few Australians believe any of the conspiracy theories, and a much larger number are angered by them, none more so than those who were there that day and escaped with their lives or watched their loved ones killed. But to evaluate the validity of a conspiracy theory, we take emotion out of the equation, and instead look to where the evidence leads.
Here is a quick summary of “the official version” of what happened. Martin Bryant, 28 years old with a clean shaven babyface and long blond hair, had an estimated IQ of 66. He received a large inheritance from a friend, with which his family tried to purchase a bed & breakfast cottage called Seascape in Port Arthur, Tasmania. But another couple, the Martins, bought it first, which Bryant took personally. On April 28, 1996, he loaded his yellow Volvo with guns and ammunition, went to Seascape, and murdered the Martins. He then drove to the nearby Port Arthur Historic Site and went to the tiny Broad Arrow Cafe, where he ate lunch, then pulled out an assault rifle and in 15 seconds, killed 12 people and injured 10. In the next 90 seconds, he went into the nearby gift shop and killed 8 more people, most of whom were crouching to hide or trapped in the small room. He then moved to the parking lot, where he killed more people trapped between or on board parked buses.
This whole time, Bryant repeatedly fired at people who were running or hiding, but having no marksmanship skills, he missed everyone except those to whom he was able to get very close.
He got into his car and drove away, passing fleeing people, and stopped when he saw a young mother running with her two children. He killed all three at point-blank range. Finding the park exit blocked with cars driven by confused people unsure what was happening, Bryant went to a BMW, killed all four people inside it, transferred some of his guns and ammunition to it and drove away. He stopped at a service station where he killed a girl and forced her boyfriend, Glenn Pears, into the trunk of the BMW, and drove off again.
He returned to the Seascape cottage where he had begun his day, and fired at passing cars, injuring several more people. He took Pears inside the house, set the BMW on fire, and barricaded himself in. Police began to arrive and Bryant held them all off with gunfire. An 18 hour standoff lasted until the next morning, when Bryant killed Pears and lit the house on fire. He eventually ran outside, on fire, and was apprehended as he pulled off his burning clothes. In all, he’d killed 35 and wounded 21.
In the aftermath, new gun control laws were enacted throughout a shocked Australia. More than anything else, this is what sparked the speculation that a hidden government agenda must have motivated the entire episode, part of a giant master plan to trick the unsuspecting public into willingly disarming.
Much is made by the conspiracy theorists of the claim that Bryant was sent to prison for life without a trial, which would indeed be shocking and seemingly unprecedented. It’s also misleading. Bryant plead guilty to all charges, so it didn’t go to trial, like every case in which the defendant pleads guilty to all charges. Despite being of acknowledged low intelligence, he was found competent to stand trial, a finding that has not been challenged. His lawyer persuaded him to plead guilty simply because the evidence against him was overwhelming; he had no realistic chance of getting off, and a guilty plea was the route to the best possible outcome for him. It was not a conspiracy against a patsy; it was his best legal option.
That Bryant was placed in solitary confinement for the first eight months of his sentence is said to be evidence that the government didn’t want him to be able to reveal any truths about the conspiracy. It’s possible this is the reason, but there are at least two other reasons that Bryant, and many other criminals like him, are kept in isolation. The first is that among his victims were children, murdered at close range for no reason. Prison inmates have a reputation for not taking kindly to child killers, especially to those who need to use a gun to do it, and it’s more than likely that Bryant would have been attacked or even killed in prison if not kept separated. Indeed, there were specific threats against him. Even his meals were prepared separately by special staff to prevent anyone from trying to poison him. The second reason is that he was on suicide watch and was in a special hospital ward suicide-proof cell, and for good reason; he’s attempted suicide at least twice so far.
Some conspiracy theorists claim that Bryant displayed extraordinary combat skills that could only belong to a highly trained expert, and not to an intellectually challenged kid with no firearms experience. One noted that the true perpetrator must be one of the top 10 or 20 shooters in the entire world. In fact Bryant displayed no special skills, killing nearly all of his victims within just a few meters, and some with the muzzle of his gun actually touching them. He missed all of his shots that were at any appreciable distance. Nor should it be surprising that the Port Arthur killer would be untrained; it’s quite common for mass killings to be carried out by loners with no military connections or special training.
And then there are myriad small details on which some sources are unclear; for example, whether the knife with which Bryant killed Mr. Martin at Seascape was found in Bryant’s bag in the Broad Arrow Cafe, or nearby. Some characterize discrepancies such as this as evidence that the knife must have been planted by police. There is also minimal publicly known evidence that physically places Bryant at the Port Arthur Historic Site at all on that day. There is speculation surrounding the appearance of an armed man on the roof of a building at Seascape cottage during the night. One need only scan through any of the many web sites promoting the idea that the Port Arthur massacre was a government conspiracy to find many such questions raised.
But there is an alternate explanation for all of these questions that satisfies the available evidence without the need to introduce a conspiracy. Whatever evidence might exist is evidence in a murder case. It is not necessarily available to the public. Whatever it was, it was described by Bryant’s attorney as overwhelming, and was sufficient for the prosecutors to charge him. Bryant was caught red-handed during the siege; there is no plausible doubt that Martin Bryant is the person who held off the police overnight. Whatever physical evidence may have been gathered by investigators that supports the chain of eyewitness accounts, all the way back to Martin Bryant’s yellow Volvo laden with weapons and recovered at the Port Arthur parking lot, is sealed. This evidence’s apparent nonexistence may indeed be consistent with a coverup, but it’s also exactly what we’d expect to find in the context of a murder investigation.
Once, Bryant’s attorney took some photos of him in jail during a visit, which were then confiscated and destroyed by prison authorities. This incident is often pointed to as proof that some kind of coverup is taking place, along with assertions that nobody has ever been allowed to photograph Bryant; perhaps because it might be discovered that his physical description does not match that given by eyewitnesses. This is a goofy claim. Photos and video of Martin Bryant were widely published throughout the media following the incident, and are still all over the Internet to this day. Does it really make sense that a conspiring Australian government would think it was accomplishing anything by banning photographs of Bryant? The lawyer’s photographs were destroyed because cameras are not permitted inside prisons without prior permission, for obvious reasons, and he had failed to request any such permission. Again, there is no conspiracy needed to explain these events.
So why do the conspiracy theories persist? Why are some people so quick to jump on board any bandwagon that presumes the existence of a hidden malevolent power? It’s yet another manifestation of the way our brains are hardwired. We want to find patterns. We want to make connections between cause and effect. When something goes bump in the night and nothing is seen, our brains want to assign the blame to a ghost. When shapes in a photograph from Mars mimic a face, our brains conjure up a Martian civilization that must have carved it. When a natural disaster happens, we look to secret government research as the culprit. And when a lone gunman murders 35 people, it’s natural for our brains to imagine an evil intelligence behind what happened. Psychologists call this agency detection. The caveman who errs on the side of caution and assumes that every rustle in the grass is a saber-toothed cat is more likely to survive than the one who casually dismisses it as a harmless breath of wind.
As aggravating (or even offensive) as they might be, conspiracy theories like the Port Arthur massacre are the naturally evolved result of our brains failing on the side of caution. In this case it’s wrong, and in many other cases too. But if we always assume that the Martin Bryants of this world are troubled loners acting completely on their own, evolutionary theory says that one day the saber-tooth will get us. We have to always look at the facts.
Cite this article:
Dunning, B. “The Port Arthur Massacre.” Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, 12 Apr 2011. Web. 27 Apr 2016. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4253>
Altmann, C. After Port Arthur. Crows Nest NSW: Allen & Unwin, 2006. 9-23.
Angle, M. “Port Arthur conspiracy theory still upsets Tasmanians.” The World Today. Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 22 Feb. 2001. Web. 25 Mar. 2011. <http://www.abc.net.au/worldtoday/stories/s250296.htm>
Bingham, M. Suddenly One Sunday. Sydney: Harper Collins, 1996.
Editors. “Shedding Light on Port Arthur Killer.” The Age. The Age Company Ltd., 29 Mar. 2006. Web. 31 Mar. 2011. <http://www.theage.com.au/articles/2006/03/28/1143441154819.html>
Mullen, P. Psychological Report, Martin Bryant. Melbourne: Victorian Forensic Psychiatry Services, 1996.
Stein, G. “Managing Martin: The Jailing of Martin Bryant.” Background Briefing. ABC Radio National, 16 Mar. 1997. Web. 31 Mar. 2011. <http://www.abc.net.au/rn/talks/bbing/stories/s10603.htm>
The Port Arthur massacre of 28 April 1996 was a killing spree which claimed the lives of 35 people and wounded 21 others mainly at the historic Port Arthur prison colony, a popular tourist site in south-eastern Tasmania, Australia.Martin Bryant, a 28-year-old from New Town, a suburb of Hobart, eventually pleaded guilty to the crimes and was given 35 life sentences without possibility of parole. He is now interned in the Wilfred Lopes Centre near Risdon Prison. The Port Arthur massacre remains Australia’s deadliest killing spree and one of the deadliest such incidents worldwide in recent times.
Martin Bryant inherited a great deal of money from a family friend, Helen Harvey, who left her estate to him. He used part of this money to go on many trips around the world from 1993 onwards. Bryant also withdrew many thousands of dollars during this period. He used at least some of this money in late 1993 to purchase an AR-10 semi-automatic rifle through a newspaper advertisement in Tasmania. In March 1996, he had his AR-10 repaired at a gun shop and made enquiries about AR-15 rifles in other gun shops. In April 1995, he also purchased cleaning kits for a .30 calibre weapon and 12 gauge shotgun. He purchased a sports bag and told a shop attendant that it would need to be strong enough to carry large amounts of ammunition. He told his girlfriend, Petra Wilmot, a different story about the purpose of the bag. He also hid the weapons and a large amount of ammunition at his house. His girlfriend was initially employed as a gardener by Bryant, and she never saw any weapons or ammunition in the house.
Bryant’s father had tried to purchase a B & B property called Seascape, but David and Noelene Martin bought this property before his father could ready his finances, much to the disappointment of the father who often complained to his son of the “double dealing” the Martins had done to secure the purchase. Bryant offered to buy another property for the Martins at Palmers Lookout Road, but they declined the offer. It is unknown if this was responsible for the father’s depression and subsequent suicide. However, Bryant apparently believed the Martins had deliberately bought the property to hurt his family and blamed the Martins for the depression that led to his father’s death, later describing them as “very mean people” and as “the worse people in my life”(sic).
28 April 1996
The events of this day were pieced together after investigation by police. The facts were then presented in court on 19 November 1996.
Bryant woke up at 6 a.m., when his alarm clock went off. His girlfriend and other family members said he had never been known to use it since he did not work and had no other commitments. At 8 a.m., his girlfriend left the house, inherited from Helen Harvey, to visit her parents. Bryant left the house and engaged the alarm, which registered the time as 9:47 a.m. He left a large amount of ammunition in the hallways of the house.
At around 10:30 a.m., Bryant purchased a cigarette lighter from Midway Point News Agency, paying with a large note without waiting for his change. Initially he entered the shop without money to clarify that the shop did sell lighters, and upon hearing that they did, went back to his car to retrieve the money. He then travelled to Sorell Supermarket and purchased a bottle of tomato sauce, which he paid for with coins (between 20 cents and $2). He then travelled to Forcett Village, arriving sometime around 11 a.m. He stopped at the Shell service station and bought a cup of coffee. He told the attendant he was going surfing at Roaring Beach, but the attendant noted it was a very calm day. He drove past Eaglehawk Neck area and stopped at the service station “Convict Bakery” to purchase $15 worth of petrol. The attendant saw Bryant staring at the bay and its calm water. Bryant had a surf board on the roof rack of his yellow Volvo and the attendant also noted that the surfing conditions that day were poor.
He continued down to Port Arthur and was seen driving into Seascape down the Arthur Highway around 11:45. He stopped at the Seascape guest accommodation site that his father had wanted to purchase, owned by David and Noelene Martin. Bryant went inside and fired several shots, then gagged David Martin and stabbed him. Witnesses testified to different numbers of shots fired at this time. It was claimed in court that it was believed that this was the time that Bryant killed the Martins.
A couple stopped at Seascape and Bryant appeared outside. They asked if they could have a look at the accommodation. Bryant told them that they could not because his parents were away and his girlfriend was inside. His demeanour was described as quite rude and the couple felt uncomfortable. They left at about 12:35 p.m. Bryant’s car was seen reversed up to the front door. It is assumed he unloaded ammunition
Bryant drove to Port Arthur, taking the keys to the Seascape properties after locking the doors. Bryant stopped at a car which had pulled over from overheating and talked with two people there. He suggested that they come to the Port Arthur cafe for some coffee later.
He travelled past the Port Arthur historic site toward a Palmer’s Lookout Road property owned by the Martins, where he came across Roger Larner driving out of his driveway. Larner had met him on some occasions over 15 years ago but did not initially recognise him. Bryant told Larner he had been surfing and had bought a property called Fogg Lodge and was now looking to buy some cattle from Larner. Bryant also made several comments about buying the Martins’ place next door. He asked if Marian Larner was home, and asked if he could continue down the driveway of the farm to see her. Larner said OK, but told Bryant he would come also. Bryant changed his mind and left, claiming he was going to return in the afternoon.
Port Arthur Historic Site
At around 1:10 p.m., Bryant got in line behind other cars at the toll booth at the entrance to the historic site. Upon getting close to the toll booth, he left the line and moved to the back again. Eventually getting to the front of the line, he claimed someone almost reversed into him. He paid the entry fee and proceeded to park near the Broad Arrow Cafe, near the water’s edge. The site security manager told him to park with the other cars because that area was reserved for camper-vans and the car park was very busy that day. Bryant moved his car to another area and sat in his car for a few minutes. He then moved his car back near the water, outside the cafe. The security manager saw him go up to the cafe carrying a large bag and a video camera, but ignored him.
Bryant went into the cafe and purchased a meal, which he ate on the deck outside. People held the door open for him and commented on the large amount of food he had. He replied that he was hungry from surfing. Bryant started conversations with several people about European wasps in the area and the lack of Japanese tourists, but seemed to be mainly mumbling to himself. He appeared nervous and continually looked back to the car-park and into the cafe.
Broad Arrow Cafe murders
Bryant finished his meal, walked into the cafe and returned his tray, assisted by some people who opened the door for him. He put down his bag on a table and pulled out an AR-15 rifle with one 30-round magazine attached. He left the bag which contained, among other things, the knife with which he had stabbed Martin, on the table. It is believed the magazine was partially emptied from the previous rounds fired at Seascape.
The cafe was very small with the tables very close together. The cafe was particularly busy that day as people waited for the next ferry. The events happened extremely quickly. Bryant took aim from his hip and pointed his rifle at Moh Yee (William) Ng and Sou Leng Chung, who were visiting from Malaysia, who were at a table beside Bryant. He shot them at close range, killing both instantly. Bryant lifted the rifle to his shoulder and fired a shot at Mick Sargent, grazing his scalp and knocking him to the floor. He fired a fourth shot, a fatal one that hit Sargent’s girlfriend, 21-year-old Kate Elizabeth Scott, in the back of the head
A 28-year-old New Zealand winemaker, Jason Winter, had been helping the staff at the busy cafe. As Bryant turned towards Winter’s wife, Joanne, and their 15-month-old son, Mitchell, Winter threw a serving tray at Bryant in an attempt to distract him. Joanne Winter’s father pushed his daughter and grandson to the floor and under the table.
Anthony Nightingale stood up after the sound of the first shots, but had no time to move. Nightingale yelled “No, not here!” as Bryant pointed the weapon at him. As Nightingale leaned forward, he was fatally shot through the neck and spin
The next table had held a group of ten friends, but some had just left the table to return their meal trays and visit the gift shop. Bryant fired one shot that hit Kevin Vincent Sharp, 68, killing him. The second hit Walter Bennett, passed through his body and struck Raymond John Sharp, 67, Kevin Sharp’s brother, killing both.The three had their backs towards Bryant, and were unaware what was happening. One of them even made the comment “That’s not funny” after hearing the first few shots, not realising it was a real gun. The shots were all close range, with the gun at, or just inches away from, the back of their heads. Gerald Broome, Gaye Fidler and her husband John were all struck by bullet fragments, but survived.
Bryant then turned towards Tony and Sarah Kistan and Andrew Mills.Both men stood up at the noise of the initial shots but had no time to move away. Andrew Mills was shot in the head. Tony Kistan was also shot from about 2 metres away, also in the head, but had managed to push his wife away prior to being shot. Sarah Mills was apparently not seen by Bryant, as she was under the table by that time.
Thelma Walker and Pamelia Law were injured by shrapnel before being dragged to the ground by their friend, Peter Crosswell, as the three sheltered underneath the table. Also injured by fragments from these shots was Patricia Barker.
It was only then that the majority of the people in the cafe began to realise what was happening and that the shots were not some sort of noise from a re-enactment at the historical site. At this point there was great confusion, with many people not knowing what to do, as Bryant was near the main exit.
Bryant moved just a few metres and began shooting at another table, where Graham Colyer, Carolyn Loughton and her daughter Sarah were seated. Colyer was injured in the jaw, causing him to nearly choke to death on his own blood. Sarah Loughton ran towards her mother who had been moving between tables. Carolyn Loughton threw herself on top of her daughter. Bryant shot Carolyn Loughton in the back, her eardrum ruptured by the sonic boom from the gun going off beside her ear.Carolyn Loughton survived her injuries, although her daughter was shot in the head. The elder Loughton did not discover until she came out of surgery that despite her efforts, Sarah was fatally injured.
Bryant pivoted around and fatally shot Mervyn Howard, a football administrator, who was still seated. The bullet travelled through him, through a window of the cafe, and hit a table on the outside balcony. Bryant quickly followed up with a shot to the neck of Mervyn Howard’s wife, Elizabeth.Bryant then leaned over a vacant baby stroller and pointed the gun at her head and shot her a second time.Both of the Howards’ injuries were fatal.Several people outside then realised there was real danger and began to run away.
Bryant was near the exit, preventing others from attempting to run past him and escape. Bryant moved across the cafe towards the gift shop area. There was an exit door through the display area to the outside balcony, but it was locked and could only be opened with a key. As Bryant moved along, Robert Elliott stood up, perhaps hoping to distract Bryant. He was shot in the arm and head, left slumping against the fireplace but alive.
All of these events, from the first bullet that killed Ng, took approximately 15 seconds, during which 12 people were dead and 10 more were wounded.
Gift shop murders
Bryant moved toward the gift shop area, giving many people time to hide under tables and behind shop displays. He shot the two local women who worked in the gift shop, Nicole Burgess, 17, and Elizabeth Howard, 26.Burgess was shot in the head and Howard in the arm and chest.Both succumbed to their injuries.
Coralee Lever and Vera Jary hid behind a hessian screen with others. Lever’s husband, Dennis, was shot in the head and died. Pauline Masters, Vera Jary’s husband Ron, and Peter and Carolyn Nash had attempted to escape through a locked door but could not.Peter Nash lay down on top of his wife to hide her from Bryant.Bryant moved into the gift shop area where people, trapped with nowhere to go, were crouched down in the corners.Gwen Neander, trying to escape through the door, was shot in the head and killed.
Bryant saw movement in the café and moved near the front door. He shot at a table and hit Peter Crosswell, who was hiding under it, in the buttock.Jason Winter, hiding in the gift shop, thought Bryant had left the building and made some comment about it to people near him before moving out into the open. Bryant saw him, with Winter stating “No, no” just prior to being shot, the bullet hitting his hand, neck and chest. A second shot to the head proved fatal to Winter.Fragments from those shots struck American tourist Dennis Olson who had been hiding with his wife, Mary, and Winter Dennis Olson suffered shrapnel injuries to his hand, scalp, eye and chest, but survived the injuries.
It is not clear what happened next, although at some point, Bryant reloaded his weapon. Bryant walked back to the cafe and then returned to the gift shop, this time looking down to another corner of the shop where he found several people hiding in the corner, trapped. He walked up to them and shot Ronald Jary through the neck, killing him. He then shot Peter Nash and Pauline Masters, killing both of them. He did not see Carolyn Nash who was lying under her husband.Bryant aimed his gun at an unidentified Asian man, but the rifle’s magazine was empty.Bryant then quickly moved to the gift shop counter where he reloaded his rifle, leaving an empty magazine on the service counter and left the building.
29 rounds were fired in the cafe and gift shop areas in approximately 90–120 seconds. In that time, Bryant killed 20 people.
Car park murders
During the cafe shooting, some staff members had been able to escape through the kitchen and alert people outside. There were a number of coaches outside with lines of people, many of whom began to hide in the buses or in nearby buildings. Others did not understand the situation or were not sure where to go. Some people believed there was some sort of historical re-enactment happening, and moved towards the area.
Ashley John Law, a site employee, was moving people away from the café into the information centre when Bryant fired at him from 50–100 metres away. The bullets missed Law and hit some trees nearby.
Bryant then moved down towards the coaches. One of the coach drivers, Royce Thompson, was shot in the back as he was moving along the passengers’ side of a coach.He fell to the ground and was able to crawl, then roll under the bus to safety, but he later died of his wounds.Brigid Cook was trying to guide a number of people down between the buses and along the jetty area to cover. She had only been informed of what was happening and was worried that she was making a fool of herself in over-reacting, although her actions no doubt saved many lives. Bryant then moved to the front of this bus and walked across to the next coach. People had quickly moved from this coach towards the back end, in an attempt to seek cover. As Bryant walked around it he saw people scrambling to hide and shot at them. Brigid Cook was shot in the right thigh, causing the bone to fragment, the bullet lodging there.A coach driver, Ian McElwee, was hit by fragments of Miss Cook’s bone. Both were able to escape and survived.
Bryant then quickly moved around another coach and fired at another group of people. Winifred Aplin, running to get to cover behind another coach, was fatally shot in the side.Another bullet grazed Yvonne Lockley’s cheek, but she was able to enter one of the coaches to hide, and survived
Some people then started moving away from the car park towards the jetty. But someone shouted that Bryant was moving that way, so they tried to double back around the coaches to where Brigid Cook was previously shot. Bryant doubled back to where Janet and Neville Quin, who owned a wildlife park on the east coast of Tasmania, were beginning to move toward Mason Cove and away from the buses. Bryant shot Janet Quin in the back, where she fell, unable to move, near Royce Thompson
Bryant then continued along the car park as people tried to escape along the shore. Doug Hutchinson was attempting to get into a coach when he was shot in the arm.He quickly changed directions, ran around the front of the coach, and then along the shore to the jetty and hid.
Bryant then went to his vehicle, which was just past the coaches, and changed weapons to the FN FAL. He fired at Denise Cromer, who was near the penitentiary ruins. Gravel flew up in front of her, as the bullets hit the ground. Bryant then got in his car and sat there for a few moments before getting out again and moving back to the coaches. Some people were taking cover behind cars in the car park, and because of the elevation, Bryant could see them and the cars did not provide much cover. When they realised Bryant had seen them, they ran into the bush. He fired several shots, at least one hit a tree behind which someone was taking cover, but no-one was hit.
Bryant moved back to the buses where Janet Quin laid injured from the earlier shot. Bryant shot her in the back, then left; she later died from her wounds. Bryant then went onto one of the coaches and fired a shot at Elva Gaylard who was on the bus hiding, hitting her in the arm and chest, killing her.At an adjacent coach, Gordon Francis saw what happened and moved down the aisle to try and shut the door of the coach he was on.He was seen by Bryant and shot from the opposite coach. He survived but needed four major operations.
Neville Quin, husband of Janette, had escaped to the jetty area, but had come back to look for his wife. He had been forced to leave her earlier after Bryant had shot her. Bryant exited the coach and noticing Quin, chased Quin around the coaches as he tried to escape. Bryant fired at him at least twice before Quin ran onto a coach, in the hope of escaping Bryant. Bryant entered the coach and pointed the gun at Neville Quin’s face, saying, “No one gets away from me”. Mr Quin ducked when he realised Bryant was about to pull the trigger. The bullet missed his head but hit his neck, momentarily paralysing him.After Bryant had left, Quin managed to find his wife, although she later died in his arms.Neville Quin was eventually taken away by helicopter and survived.
As Bryant left the coach, James Balasko, an American citizen, tried to catch Bryant on his video camera. He was successful but Bryant saw him and fired at him, hitting a nearby car. By now many people, unable to use their parked cars, were hiding or running along Jetty Road or the jetty itself. Most people did not know where Bryant was because the gunfire was extremely loud and difficult to pinpoint. It was not clear that Bryant was mobile, nor was it even clear from which direction the shots were coming.
Toll booth murders and car jacking
Bryant then got back into his car and proceeded to leave the car park. Witnesses say he was sounding the horn and waving, others say he was also firing. Bryant drove along Jetty Road towards the toll booth where a number of people were running away. Bryant passed by at least two people. Ahead of him were Nanette Mikac (Née Moulton) and her two young children, Madeline, 3, and Alannah, 6 years old.Nanette was carrying Madeline and Alannah was running slightly ahead. By now they had run approximately 600 metres from the car park. Nanette told Alannah, “We’re safe now, pumpkin.”Bryant opened his door and slowed down. Mikac moved towards the car, apparently thinking he was offering them help in escaping. Several more people witnessed this from further down the road. Someone then recognised him as the gunman and yelled out “It’s him!”. Bryant stepped out of the car, put his hand on Nanette Mikac’s shoulder and told her to get on her knees.She did so, saying, “Please don’t hurt my babies”
Bryant shot her in the temple, killing her, before firing a shot at Madeleine, which hit her in the shoulder, before shooting her fatally through the chest. Bryant shot twice at Alannah, as she ran behind the tree, missing. He then walked up, pressed the barrel of the gun into her neck and fired, killing her instantly. Bryant fired one or two more rounds at some people hiding in a bush, but he missed. Having seen the murders of the children, some people further up the road began running. They told drivers of cars coming down the road to go back. The people thought Bryant would head up the road, so instead they proceeded on foot down a dirt side road and hid in the bush. The cars reversed up the road to the toll booth, and drivers stopped to ask the staff member what was happening. It appeared no one at the toll booth area knew what was happening.
Bryant drove up to the toll booth where there were several vehicles and blocked a BMW. The car was owned by Mary Rose Nixon.The car, driven by Russell James Pollard, was also occupied by Helene and Robert Graham Salzmann.An argument with Robert Salzmann ensued, and Bryant took out the FAL and shot Salzmann at point blank range, killing him. Pollard emerged from the BMW and went towards Bryant, who shot him in the chest, killing him.More cars then arrived, seeing this, but were quickly able to reverse back up the road. Bryant then moved to the BMW and pulled Nixon and Helene Salzmann from the car and shot them dead, dragging their bodies onto the road. Bryant transferred ammunition, handcuffs, the AR-15 rifle and a fuel container to the BMW. Mary Nixon, Russell Pollard, and Helene Salzmann, as well as Graham Salzmann, are the people Bryant was charged with killing at the toll booth.
Another car then came towards the toll booth and Bryant shot at it.The driver, Graham Sutherland, was hit with glass. A second bullet hit the driver’s door. The car quickly reversed back up the road and left. Bryant then got into the BMW having left behind a number of items in his Volvo, including a shotgun and hundreds of rounds of ammunition.
Service station murder and abduction
Graham Sutherland, who just had been shot at in his car, reversed back up the road and drove to the service station close by, where he tried to inform people what was happening. Bryant drove up to the service station and cut off a white Toyota Corolla that was attempting to exit onto the highway. Glenn Pears was driving the car with girlfriend Zoe Hall in the passenger seat. Bryant quickly exited the car with his rifle in hand and tried to pull Hall from the car. Pears got out of the car and approached Bryant. Bryant pointed the gun at Pears and pushed him backwards, eventually directing him into the now open boot of the BMW, locking Pears inside.
Bryant then moved back to the passenger side of the Corolla as Hall attempted to climb over to the driver’s seat.Bryant raised his rifle and fired three shots, killing her.Many people around the service station saw this and ran to hide in nearby bushland. The service station attendant told everyone to lie down and he locked the main doors. He grabbed his rifle, but by the time he could retrieve some ammunition and load his gun, Bryant was back in his car and gone. A police officer arrived several minutes later and then went in the direction of Bryant.
As Bryant drove down to Seascape he shot at a red Falcon coming the other way, smashing its front windscreen. Upon arriving at Seascape, he got out of his car. A Frontera 4WD vehicle then approached Seascape along the road. They saw Bryant with his gun but believed him to be rabbit hunting and actually slowed down as they passed him. Bryant fired into the car, the first bullet hit the bonnet and broke the throttle cable.He fired at least two more bullets into the car as it passed, breaking the windows. One bullet hit the driver, Linda White, in the arm. The car was going downhill so it was able to roll down the road out of sight around a corner. White swapped seats with her boyfriend, Michael Wanders, who attempted to drive the car but was unable to, because of the broken throttle cable.
Another vehicle then drove down the road, carrying four people. It was not until they were almost adjacent to Bryant that they realised he was carrying a gun. Bryant shot at the car, smashing the windscreen. Douglas Horner was wounded by shrapnel from the shattered windscreen. The car proceeded ahead where White and Wanders tried to get in, but Horner did not realise the situation and drove on. When they saw that White had been shot, they came back and picked them up. Both parties then continued down to a local establishment called the Fox and Hound, where they called police.
Yet another car drove past and Bryant shot at it, hitting the passenger, Susan Williams, in the hand.The driver, Simon Williams, was struck by shrapnel.Another approaching vehicle saw this and reversed back up the road. Bryant also fired at this car hitting it but not injuring anyone. Bryant then got back into the BMW and drove down the Seascape driveway to the house.
Sometime after he stopped, Bryant removed Pears from the boot and handcuffed him to a stair rail within the house.At some point he also set the BMW on fire with fuel. He is believed to have arrived at the house by about 2 p.m.
At 1:30 p.m. the only two police officers in the area had received a radio message to attend Port Arthur and be on the look out for a yellow Volvo. They headed to Port Arthur in different cars, going different routes. On the way they were informed to look for the BMW and eventually they were informed of people at the Fox and Hound who had been shot.
One police officer then drove down the road past Seascape and past the disabled car of Mrs White. He looked at it for a moment and continued down to the Fox and Hound. He informed his partner about events and they then proceeded back to Seascape. At about 2 p.m. they were back at Seascape and could see the BMW on fire. At some point they were fired upon, and eventually had to hide in a ditch at the side of the road. Bryant fired at them whenever they tried to escape, and they were not able to move from that position for many hours.
At around 2:10 p.m. Bryant received a call from a woman from the ABC network, she had been ringing local businesses randomly trying to receive information about what was occurring, and Bryant answered the Seascape phone. Bryant informed her his name was Jamie and when she asked what was happening he replied “Lots of fun”. Bryant then informed her that if she phoned him again, he would shoot Mr Pears.
At about 3 p.m., shortly after forcing the police officers to take cover in the ditch, Bryant rang the local police station where the girlfriend of one of the police officers answered the phone. Bryant asked who she was and if she knew where her husband was. He also called himself Jamie. He asked if she knew or not if her husband was okay, and when she didn’t answer, Bryant then told her he was okay and that he knew where her husband was.
Around 9 p.m. a team from the Special Operations Group of the Tasmania Police had arrived and were eventually able to assist in removing the policemen from the ditch to safety by using the cover of darkness, riot shields and bullet proof jackets. They did not provide cover fire for fear of hitting hostages. An 18-hour standoff ensued during which time the police talked over the phone to Bryant who called himself ‘Jamie’. He made a request for a helicopter, saying that he wanted to be flown to a plane and then onto Adelaide in South Australia. He said that if the helicopter arrived he would release one hostage, Mr Pears, and only keep Mrs Martin. Bryant could see the movement of SOG officers and continually demanded their retreat each time they began an approach to the house. Police believed he had some kind of visual aid device, as he appeared to maintain excellent awareness of the events unfurling around him despite the pitch black of night, however none was ever found. A man was spotted on the roof of an adjacent building at one point, believed to be Bryant. Later in the night, the cordless phone Bryant was using began to run low on batteries. Police tried unsuccessfully to get him to return the phone to the charger, but it went dead and no further communications were established.
The following is a list of those killed in the Port Arthur massacre
Capture and prosecution
Bryant was captured the following morning when he presumably started a fire in the guest house. Bryant taunted police to ‘come and get him’, but the police, believing the hostage was already dead, decided that the fire would eventually bring him out. A large amount of ammunition had also ignited and was exploding sporadically as the house burned. He eventually ran out of the house with his clothes on fire and quickly removed his burning clothes. He was arrested by the police, and taken to hospital for treatment.
It was found that Mr Pears had been shot dead during or before the standoff and had died before the fire. The remains of the Martins were also found. It was also determined they had been shot, and in the case of Mrs Martin suffered blunt force trauma. They both died before the fire and witness accounts, as presented to the Supreme Court of Tasmania, of the gunfire place the time of death of David and Noelene Martin as being approximately noon on 28 April. One weapon was found burnt in the house, and the other on the roof of the adjacent building where police believed they had seen Bryant the night before. Both weapons had suffered from massive chamber blast pressure, possibly from the heat of the house fire. In his police interview Bryant admitted to having car jacked the BMW, but claimed it only had three occupants and denied shooting any person. He also claimed he did not take the BMW from the vicinity of the toll booth and that his hostage was taken from the BMW. He said that he thought the man he took hostage must have died in the boot when the car exploded. He did not distinguish between the car fire and the later house fire. He also denied visiting Port Arthur on that day, despite identification by several people including the toll attendant. Such discrepancies indicate that Bryant was either lying during the police interview, or was mentally incapable of recalling events accurately. Bryant also claimed that the guns found by police were not his, but admitted to owning the shotgun that was found with his passport back in his own car near the toll booth.
Initially Bryant pleaded not guilty to the 35 murders, laughing hysterically as the judge read out the charges against him. He later changed his plea to guilty after being sent back to solitary confinement. Bryant did not provide a confession. He was found guilty of all charges and is now serving 35 sentences of life imprisonment (for the 35 murders) plus 1,035 years in Hobart’s Risdon Prison (as cumulative penalty for various charges including attempted murder and grievous bodily harm for shooting at, and injuring, numerous people). His prison papers indicate that he is never to be released. He continues to serve his term without possibility of parole. This is very rare in Australia, where the majority of murder sentences allow for the possibility of parole after a long prison term. Martin Bryant remains Australia’s worst killing spree murderer and the incident is one of the worst cases worldwide of a mass killing spree in modern times.
Australians reacted to the event with widespread shock and horror, and the political effects were significant and long-lasting. Both federal and state governments, some of which (notably Tasmania itself and Queensland) were opposed to firearm control, quickly took action to restrict the availability of firearms. It should be noted that the Tasmanian state government initially attempted to ignore this directive, but was subsequently threatened with a number of penalties from the federal government. Though this resulted in stirring controversy, most Government opposition to the new laws was silenced by mounting public opinion in the wake of the shootings. Under federal government co-ordination all states and territories of Australia banned and heavily restricted the legal ownership and use of self-loading rifles, self-loading and pump-action shotguns, together with considerable tightening of other gun laws. Family members of victims, notably Walter Mikac (who lost his wife and two children), spoke out in favour of the changes. See gun politics in Australia for more information.
Much discussion has occurred as to the level of Bryant’s mental health. It is generally accepted that he has a subnormal IQ (estimated at 66, and in the lowest 2% of his age group) and at the time of the offences was in receipt of a Disability Support Pension on the basis of being mentally handicapped. Despite reports to the contrary, Bryant had never been diagnosed with schizophrenia, nor any major depressive disorder. Reports that he was schizophrenic were based on his mother’s misinterpretation of psychiatric advice. Media reports also detailed his odd behaviour as a child. However, he was able to drive a car and obtain a gun, despite lacking a gun licence. This was a matter which, in the public debate that followed, was widely regarded as a telling demonstration of the inadequacy of the nation’s gun laws.
Bryant was assessed as fit to stand trial as a mentally competent adult. There were no indications that he could be regarded as criminally insane at the time of the offences; as he clearly knew what he was doing. See the M’Naghten Rules for more information.
After Bryant’s imprisonment, several other prisoners boasted of their intention to murder him in jail. For his own safety, Bryant was held in near-solitary confinement in a specially built cell from his sentencing in November 1996 until July 1997.
His motivation for the massacre remains a closely guarded secret,known only to his lawyer, who is bound not to reveal confidences without his client’s consent. The lawyer later released a book outlining that Bryant was motivated largely by the media surrounding the then recent Dunblane massacre. From the moment he was captured he continually wanted to know how many people he had killed and seemed impressed by the number. Bryant is only allowed to listen to music on a radio outside his cell, and is denied access to any news reports of his massacre. Photographers allowed in to take pictures of him in his prison cell were forced to destroy the film in his presence when the Governor found out.
Aftermath and analysis
The Port Arthur tourist site reopened a few weeks later, and since then a new restaurant has been built. The former Broad Arrow Cafe has been converted into a “place for quiet reflection”, and the surrounding grounds converted into a memorial garden. The staff of Port Arthur do not like to talk about the event and prefer to concentrate on the site’s rich cultural history.
The massacre at Port Arthur created a kinship with the Scottish town of Dunblane, which had suffered a similar event, the Dunblane massacre, only weeks previously. The two communities exchanged items to place at their respective memorials.
Professor Paul Mullen, a forensic psychiatrist with extensive involvement following the string of massacres in Australia and New Zealand, attributes both the Port Arthur Massacre and some of the earlier massacres to the copycat effect. In this theory the saturation media coverage provides both instruction and perverse incentives for dysfunctional individuals to imitate previous crimes. In Tasmania, a coroner found that a report on the current affairs programme A Current Affair, a few months earlier had guided one suicide, and may have helped create the expectation of a massacre. The coverage of the Dunblane massacre, in particular the attention on the perpetrator, is thought to have provided the trigger for Bryant to act.
A substantial community fund was given for the victims of the Port Arthur massacre. The murder of Nanette Mikac and her daughters Alannah and Madeline inspired Dr Phil West of Melbourne, who had two girls similar in age to the murdered children, to set up a Foundation in their memory. The Alannah and Madeline Foundation (www.amf.org.au) supports child victims of violence and runs a national anti-bullying program. It was launched by the Prime Minister on the first anniversary of the massacre.
In 2007, Tasmanian playwright Tom Holloway dealt with the massacre in his play Beyond the Neck. Tasmanian composer Matthew Dewey also deals with these issues in his first symphony
At least two variants of a conspiracy theory about the massacre have been promoted. As there was no dispute that Bryant was responsible for the Seascape murders, police made little effort to identify him for Port Arthur. Of the few witnesses contacted by police, only two positively identified Bryant as the gunman at Port Arthur, both having first identified him on May 27, after the media had published his photograph naming him as the culprit. In their police statements, three witnesses, two of whom knew Bryant by sight, stated that they “did not recognise” the gunman as Bryant and a worker in the café later stated she had changed her mind because the gunman did not resemble the photographs published by the media. The conspiracy theories can be largely traced to this lack of identification.
Interviewed in 2006, Tony Rundle, who was premier of Tasmania at the time, admitted that because there was no trial the evidence made public was possibly insufficient to support that Bryant had been the gunman: At the time, the view was that a trial could do no good for the victims and their families. Now I think maybe that wasn’t the case. If all the evidence was heard, then maybe it would have provided some closure and stopped the proliferation of conspiracy theories that sprang up over the years.