Australia Massacre Prompts Call for Tougher Gun Laws
SYDNEY — As an island nation referred to affectionately as "Down Under" - a reflection of its distance from the rest of the world - Australia has always been regarded as a safe place.
No world wars have been fought on its doorstep, no terrorist bombs disrupt its cities. It has successfully created a multicultural society. The country only has about 300 murders a year. New York City alone has 1,100.
Australia's southern island state of Tasmania - about the size of Scotland - has been even farther removed from the violence of the modern world. Its isolation and rugged beauty have bonded its people into a tight-knit community of mainly fishermen, foresters, and farmers.
Much of Tasmania's innocence was lost this week. On Sunday, a man armed with several assault weapons shot and killed 35 people at various sites at or near the ruins of a former convict prison at Port Arthur, about 60 miles east of Hobart, the state capital. Australian Martin Bryant was arrested after he left a burning cottage in the vicinity.
Initially disbelief, sorrow, and grief engulfed the island, followed by anger and hatred. "An Eye for an Eye" was spray-painted across a wall of the hospital in Hobart where Mr. Bryant was receiving treatment under heavy police protection. Police say they have received 40 death threats against Mr. Bryant. Hospital staff say they had been accused by neighbors of treachery for treating him for burns received in the blazing cottage.
"This is a truly dreadful event, which is quite alien to our way of life here," Tasmania Premier Tony Rundle said.
Across Australia the shock of the massacre quickly spread, reigniting debate on gun-control laws and questioning the need for people to have powerful weapons like the military-style assault rifles the gunman used.
For most Australians, who live in cities and towns along the coast, guns are alien to their daily lives. But for sheep and cattle farmers in the desert outback, guns are essential to eradicate herds of feral donkeys, horses, and kangaroos that threaten their livelihoods by eating scarce vegetation.
An inheritance of these starkly different lifestyles, and the political division of Australia into six states and two territories when it first separated from Britain to become a nation in 1900, has been widely varying gun laws.
Tasmania has one of the highest levels of gun-ownership in Australia. A person may own a machine gun if he describes himself as a "gun collector." In other states, guns must be registered, and assault rifles are outlawed. Australia's Constitution doesn't guarantee the right to bear arms.
"The gun laws are as weak, of course, as the weakest link in the chain, which happened to be Tasmania," says Simon Chapman, head of the New South Wales state Coalition for Gun Control.
After a memorial service Wednesday in Hobart, newly elected conservative Australian Prime Minister John Howard called on the six states to adopt a nationwide ban on semiautomatic weapons.
The Tasmanian government, long reluctant to impose such a ban, announced earlier Wednesday it would move next week to outlaw semiautomatic and military-style firearms. Calls for national, uniform gun laws that would ban military-style firearms previously have met resistance from gun owners and rural politicians concerned about their electoral survival. Australia's gun lobby said Thursday it would not oppose a ban on military-style rifles, but said they did not think it would prevent future similar massacres.
But in the wake of the massacre, public momentum is building, and Mr. Howard may be forced to try to change the country's Constitution to give him the power to control guns.
The sorrow of the massacre is not confined to Australia. "The lives of every Tasmanian, every Australian, and millions around the world were violated by the horror and disbelief," Mr. Rundle said at the memorial service after a national minute of silence.
But religious leaders offered hope that through this latest adversity, Australia as a nation could emerge stronger.
"It is almost beyond comprehension that something like this could happen," said Tasmanian Anglican Bishop Dean Newell. "But it has the capacity to make us one people - for us to reach out to one another."