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The Tragic Events of April 1996 FREE

Jack Coulehan, MD, MPH
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From the State University of New York at Stony Brook, Stony Brook, New York.

Acknowledgments: The author thanks Professor Norelle Lickiss for her support and friendship, and for telling the story of the tragic events of 1996. Thanks are also due to Dr. Paul Glare, Dr. Kristen Turner, and the faculty and staff of the Institute for Palliative Medicine, Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, University of Sydney; Dr. Stan Goulston and Mrs. Jean Goulston; and the author's wife, Anne Coulehan.

Requests for Single Reprints: Jack Coulehan, MD, MPH, Department of Preventive Medicine, HSC L3-086, State University of New York at Stony Brook, Stony Brook, NY 11794-8036.

Requests To Purchase Bulk Reprints (minimum, 100 copies): the Reprints Coordinator; phone, 215-351-2657; e-mail, reprints@mail.acponline.org.

Ann Intern Med. 2000;132(11):911-913. doi:10.7326/0003-4819-132-11-200006060-00010
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In the early 19th century, Port Arthur, Tasmania, was the site of a notorious prison in a land at the end of the world. In 1996, Port Arthur was also the site of the worst mass murder in modern Australian history. A gunman with a semiautomatic weapon stepped into a tourist coffee shop and systematically shot dead 35 men, women, and children. Throughout Australia, an outpouring of grief, shame, and anger followed this tragic event and led quickly to more stringent gun control legislation. Several years later, Australians still remember the mass murder at Port Arthur with shame and horror as a personal affront, rather than simply a historical event. In the more violent society of the United States, many Americans perceive themselves as helpless victims or detached observers, rather than as persons who are responsible for promoting change.

I noticed the ruins of a small brick building near the jetty at Port Arthur, Tasmania. At the side of the road in front of the ruins was a discreet sign that read, “In memory of the tragic events of April 1996.” Hmmm … I wondered. What tragic events? The sign had no indication. Presumably the events spoke for themselves, although not to me.

Tour books don't begin to prepare you for the beauty of this countryside. Once the most notorious prison in the world, Port Arthur is now an expanse of orange and red ruins, nestled in a bucolic valley near the southern tip of the Tasman Peninsula. To one side of the harbor, the superintendent's house commands a promontory. The guard tower and officers' quarters sit on a slope behind it. Below them are the ruins of Port Arthur's model prison, where the scientific principles of early 19th century penology were once rigorously enforced. Further inland are the remains of a country village—a few houses, shops, a church, and even a small but elegant formal garden. Sure enough, the English had carried their roses and statuary fountains to this, perhaps the most distant outpost of an empire on which the sun never set.

I stood at the jetty, waiting for a boat that would take me on a tour of the harbor—to Point Puer, where the infamous boys' prison once stood, and to the Isle of the Dead, where hundreds of convicts lie buried in unmarked graves. The sky was a brilliant blue, the water calm. A cool breeze from the southern ocean tampered a little, but not much, with my illusion of paradise. As I waited, I thought about that memorial sign.

In the early 19th century, Tasmania (then known as Van Diemen's Land) was the grimmest of Britain's prison colonies. The worst of Britain's noncapital offenders were sent there—the incorrigible thieves and con men, the pickpockets and Irish revolutionaries. Those who survived the 7-month voyage from England were faced with many years of hard labor and, in most cases, exile for the term of their natural lives. Port Arthur was a pit, a living hell, an escape-proof prison built from the sweat of chained convicts. Beginning in 1830 and continuing until 1877, more than 12 000 prisoners toiled here. So much tragedy had taken place at Port Arthur that it seemed strange that “the tragic events of April 1996”—whatever they were—should be singled out for commemoration.

Later that evening, I asked a Tasmanian friend about the sign. She was incredulous. I had never before seen this woman lose her composure, but my question caused a wave of revulsion, almost as if I had slapped her in the face. At first she thought I was teasing. When I finally convinced her that I had no idea what happened at Port Arthur in April 1996, my friend told me the sad story, punctuating it with expressions of amazement that an educated and seemingly sensitive man could be so ignorant. In the end, she concluded that it was precisely my being American that caused the problem.

“After all,” she muttered, “Americans are so self-centered they rarely know what's going on in the world around them.”

On the autumn afternoon of 28 April 1996, a young man named Martin Bryant walked into the Broad Arrow Cafe at Port Arthur, which was packed with tourists. Bryant put down the canvas bag he was carrying, pulled out a semiautomatic rifle, and began (almost casually) to shoot people, aiming for their heads and necks. Within minutes, he had killed most of the occupants. After leaving the cafe, Bryant picked off others in the parking lot and along the road. If his victims tried to flee, he sometimes pursued them until he was able to get a clear shot. Before Bryant was finished, 35 men, women, and children had died in the worst mass murder in Australian history (1). Another 18 people were injured. Hundreds more were shattered by loss and grief. Nineteen hours later, police arrested the killer when he ran from a burning farmhouse, in which he had been hiding.

Martin Bryant, now serving a life sentence in an Australian prison, has never given a coherent explanation for his actions. At one point, though, he claimed that he chose Port Arthur because its history made it an “appropriate” place for a killing spree.

The mass murder led immediately to a national outcry for stricter gun control legislation. Australians were outraged that such a heinous crime could occur in their country. They took it personally. “This is not America,” a colleague later explained to me. “This is Australia. We just couldn't understand it.”

Unlike the U.S. Congress, the Australian Parliament had the political will to take serious action. The gun control legislation that arose from the tragedy essentially outlawed semiautomatic weapons. Apart from exemptions for military personnel, the police, and persons in certain other occupations, self-loading rifles (center-fire rifles, pump-action shotguns, and rim-fire rifles) were banned (2). Because handguns were already illegal outside the realm of law enforcement, they were not an issue. (The notion of an ordinary citizen owning or carrying a pistol seems very peculiar to Australians.) During its first year of implementation, the new law forced gun owners to surrender more than 640 000 personal firearms to the authorities.

The day after I visited Port Arthur, my wife and I attended a dinner at the home of a professor at the University of Tasmania. As we sat in his lounge with several other couples, enjoying hors d'oeurves and fine Tasmanian wine, our friend seized the opportunity to tell everyone about our ignorance of the massacre. The room became quiet. The temperature seemed to plummet. The usual Australian heartiness dampened, as each guest struggled with his or her own strong feelings.

I can't believe it … they hadn't heard about Port Arthur?

These Americans, they're oblivious.

They're so inured to violence that they don't care.

I felt defensive and compelled to invent an explanation—yes, I had known that there had been a massacre, but I had simply forgotten the location and details. After all, Australia is a big country. The other folks were kind, but unconvinced. They quickly changed the topic.

In retrospect, I realize that Port Arthur touches a nerve for Australians. It forces them to acknowledge an evil before which they feel vulnerable and betrayed. After this experience, I revisited the topic with dozens of Australians over the next 2 months. These persons ranged from an elderly retired physician and his wife of 60 years to a bright-eyed secondary school student, who was engaged in the impossible task of trying to teach me the rules of cricket. In every case, there was instant recognition, pain, and the shadow of emotional distress. There was universal awareness and satisfaction that public action had been taken (that is, the new gun law), but this did not assuage the personal sense of loss. In sum, nearly 4 years after the event, people still felt connected to the victims.

On an international scale, Australia's homicide rate is low. In 1997 to 1998, for example, the rate was less than one quarter that of the United States and similar to that of Canada and New Zealand. In a nation of about 18 million people, recorded homicides average one per day, a rate that has remained generally steady over the past 25 years. Overall, gun deaths (homicides, suicides, and accidents) averaged 537 annually for the 5 years (1992 through 1996) preceding the implementation of the new gun laws (3). They declined to 437 in 1997 and 327 in 1998. Homicide from firearms decreased from 104 in 1996 to 79 in 1997 to 57 in 1998. Gun-related suicides decreased from 382 in 1996 to 330 in 1997 and 234 in 1998 (34). Although these figures do not prove a causal relation, it is clear that fewer firearm deaths are occurring in Australia since the new gun laws took effect.

U.S. society is far more violent. Our popular culture is among the most violent in the world. Many older Australians with whom I spoke remarked that fear of violence (rightly or wrongly) was a deterrent to their visiting the United States. Some whose children or grandchildren attend college or live in the United States reported constant low-grade fear for their safety, fear that would be reduced or absent if the youths were living in Europe or Great Britain. Although such beliefs are based largely on exaggeration and distortion, they also contain an element of truth. After all, we live in a country with 200 million privately owned firearms, a country with frequent and highly publicized mass murders, and a country in which repeated school killings—in Kentucky, Arkansas, Texas, Oregon, and Colorado—cause only brief outbursts of dismay and very timid national reactions.

Perhaps the tragic events of April 1999 in Columbine, Colorado, have come closest to causing a Port Arthur–style national reaction of grief. Certainly, an outpouring of self-examination and thoughtful commentary followed this “worst high school mass murder in U.S. history.” Yet, a year later, the response looks mixed. There are still pockets of grief and anger, but how many Americans are stunned into silence when the name “Columbine” is mentioned? There are many state and federal proposals for gun control legislation, but how strong are they? What chance do they have of enactment? The first anniversary of the Columbine massacre is an occasion for homilies and handwringing, but I wonder how deep or widespread is the sense of connection—that is, the sense that Columbine is my problem?

What struck me most about the reaction to Port Arthur was its sincerity. There was no cynicism. There appeared to be no irony. There was no intellectualization. The defeated excuse of impotence did not jump to everyone's lips. The responses were complex, but personal and connected. The secondary school student and the retired physician, the oncologist and the tour operator, the secretary and the garage mechanic—they all believed they have a stake in their community and they all felt in some sense … responsible.




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