Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Australian Psycho

Eleven years ago this month a gunman with an assault rifle killed 35 people at a tourist resort, in the biggest mass murder in Australian history. What happened next is instructive as America wrestles with the aftermath of its deadliest mass killing, the murders at Virginia Tech.

Port Arthur is a small tourist town on the coast of Tasmania. It boasts an old penal colony that has been turned into a tourist attraction. Late April is the tag end of autumn in the Southern Hemisphere, and there were still many tourists at the Broad Arrow Café.

Among the lunchtime patrons on that balmy Sunday, April 28, 1996, was Martin Bryant. He calmly finished his meal on the balcony, and then he walked into the main dining room, laid a satchel on an empty table, pulled out an AR15 assault rifle and started shooting.

The first victim was an Asian, Moh Yee Ng, shot through the head literally as he was raising his soup spoon to his mouth. His girl friend was next followed by a dozen or more in the café. Bryant killed some 20 people there in less than two minutes.

He then left the café and moved through the seaside resort, seeking more victims. Several tourists emerging from a tour bus were shot. (It is said that some tourists actually moved toward the sounds, thinking that the gun shots were part of some re-enactment.)

He climbed in his car and drove about three hundred yards. Along the road he spotted a woman and her two children and shot them, actually chasing one of the girls down as she tried vainly to hide behind a tree.

Then he held up in a cottage with one hostage (whom he killed) until finally surrendering to the police nineteen hours after the shooting began. In all, he killed 35 (two more than the Virginia Tech killer, for those keeping count) and wounded 18.

Unusually for such cases, Bryant survived to tell his tale – or sort of, as he never actually confessed, and there are conspiracy theorists who still maintain he was a patsy for other shooters, a latter-day Lee Harvey Oswald, the assassin of John F. Kennedy.

He was later diagnosed as schizophrenic and was (inevitably) described as a “quiet lad and a bit of a loner”. Nevertheless, he was judged legally sane, convicted of 35 counts of murder and sentenced to 35 life sentences in prison without the possibility of parole.

As in the case of Virginia Tech today, there were fears about “copy cat” killings, and for good reason. The Port Arthur Massacre came a little more than one month after the mass killing of 18 school children at Dunblane, Scotland.

But here is where the story diverges sharply from the American experience, since the recently elected conservative government of Prime Minister John Howard went into overdrive to enact sweeping new restrictions on gun ownership.

The federal government strong-armed the states and territories into enacting uniform gun control laws, even threatening to cut off federal funding if they didn’t comply. Under Australia’s constitution the federal government cannot regulate fire arms, but it insisted that the states do so.

Howard even threatened to call a national referendum to pass an amendment to the constitution allowing stricter gun control if the states did not fall in line. He personally appeared before shooter groups to lobby the changes.

Australia’s gun advocate groups are considerably weaker than America’s National Rifle Association and concerned mainly with hunters’ rights rather than self-defense, which is the American obsession. The NRA tried to stiffen their opposition but was firmly told to butt out.

The upshot: mandatory gun licensing; registration of all firearms; an almost complete ban on all semi-automatic weapons, including pump-action shot guns. Additionally, the government levied a temporary 1% income tax surcharge to raise money for a gun buy-back program.

Howard’s strong position on strict gun control apparently did not hurt him with the electorate since his conservative coalition went on to win two more national elections, and Howard himself has become the second-longest serving prime minister in Australian history.

Yet Bryant’s Port Arthur killing spree wasn’t the worst mass murder in modern history. That “honor” belongs, with grim irony, to another South Korean, Woo Bum-kon, who killed 58 people, including himself, and wounded 35 in Uiryeong County South Korea in 1982.

In South Korea only the military and the police are supposed to have guns. Unfortunately, Woo was a policeman.

Disgruntled over being transferred from Seoul to the sticks and troubled by some personal problems, he got drunk and went to the police armory where he took a high-powered rifle and a supply of hand grenades (the latter something that can’t be purchased at your neighborhood pawn shop, even in Virginia.)

He then went door-to-door in several of the villages on his beat methodically murdering the occupants before he finally pulled the pin on a grenade to kill himself and a couple hostages.

It is further ironic that the Uiryeong Massacre may have actually altered the history of South Korea in a way that could hardly be predicted. The Interior Minister, responsible for the police force, resigned to atone for the killings. He was replaced by the hitherto obscure Minister of Sport, one Roh Tae-woo.

The more visible and higher ranking cabinet post may have given Roh a leg up since in a very few years he became the sixth president of South Korea.


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