Port Arthur and battle for tougher gun laws

In 1996, while Australians grappled with the horror that unfolded at a popular tourist spot; Rebecca Peters was at the epicentre of pushing for tougher gun laws. With the 25th anniversary of the shooting looming, she explains how it all came together.

In the immediate aftermath of the Port Arthur massacre, Rebecca Peters (MAppSci (Res) ’20) spent long, frustrating hours in her kitchen sending out faxes on the same phone line she was telling journalists to call her back on (this was before the internet or mobile phones).

The other volunteer members of Australia’s Coalition for Gun Control mostly had full time jobs making it hard for them to be fully on the front line to help, and where could they all work together anyway?

Rebecca Peters holding a placard saying 'nothing by chance'

Graduate Rebecca Peters has spent a lifetime advocating for tougher gun laws in Australia and around the globe.

In crisis comes opportunity

As Peters was being swamped by media demands, she knew there would only be a brief window when the horror of Port Arthur might be used to enact real change. Then an offer of space came from the University, which was walking distance from the share house where Peters was living.

There they worked round the clock with meagre resources to help a shocked and distraught nation understand the legislative failings that had led to such a catastrophe and to know that there were clear steps to be taken that would make Australia a safer place.

If an election had been coming up, [John] Howard might have worried about a pro-gun backlash that could cost him seats. But an election was a long way off so he could do more.

Rebecca Peters

In the following weeks, Peters had to be reminded to eat, to sleep; one colleague noted that at times she was so tired she could barely walk. Unflinching, Peters became the face, voice and driving force for the vast majority of Australians who wanted tougher gun laws.

“With every mass shooting, there’d be a big burst of media coverage that would quickly go away and the public would assume something had been done,” said Peters. “But nothing was ever done, and we just couldn’t let that happen again.”

Despite the horrifying numbers – 35 dead, 18 injured – it would have been easy for Port Arthur, like the many mass shootings before it, to have had no effect on gun laws at all. It only led to change because of the specific chemistry of Port Arthur. Rebecca Peters can easily list off the interactive elements.

The collective horror

“Being a tourist spot, people from every state in Australia were killed and injured in the shooting. It wasn’t personal for one state. The whole country felt it; just six weeks before Port Arthur, 16 small children and their teacher were killed in Scotland’s Dunblane massacre. With so many British-connected people in Australia, the horror of it felt closer to home than massacres in the US; and very significantly, John Howard OM AC (LLB ’61 DLitt ’16) had just won an election.

Port Arthur historic site

In its earliest days, the historic site of Port Arthur was a place of penal brutality. To the many tourists who now visit, it has become a reminder of a more recent tragic event and how the community can demand change. Photo: Keith Davey on Unsplash.

“If an election had been coming up, Howard might have worried about a pro-gun backlash that could cost him seats,” says Peters. “But an election was a long way off so he could do more.”

There was another factor. As Australians confronted the shock of Port Arthur, the Coalition for Gun Control was primed and ready for the fight to toughen gun laws. To a large extent, this was because of Peters’s first project on volunteering with the organisation five years previously: she assessed its resources and priorities.

Savvy, strategic, tireless and determined, Peters’s influence was transformative.

You want to believe that laws have been thought through so they at least have the basic things. But reading the gun statutes, I actually thought a page was missing.

Rebecca Peters

In her early career as a journalist and radio producer, she had a strong social justice bent. Being constantly confronted by nonsensical political decision making (“It’s rare for the major parties to have the public good as the top priority,” she notes), she asked herself how she could take part in and better shape those decision-making conversations. Her answer was, become a lawyer. So, she studied law while also working in the media (Peters is an audacious multi-tasker).

During her first year at law school, in 1991, there was a mass shooting in the inner west Sydney suburb of Strathfield. Seven people were murdered. The furious community response to the Strathfield massacre made Peters curious about the New South Wales gun laws.

The laws she found were, at best, vague and patchy, “You want to believe that laws have been thought through so they at least have the basic things,” says Peters. “But reading the gun statutes, I actually thought a page was missing.” She laughs at this remark but the expression in her eyes is still disbelieving.

The journalist in Peters decided to write an article alerting people to the dire state of gun laws. It didn’t find its audience, but the process did put her in contact with Australia’s small gun control movement. At the time, the under-resourced volunteers dotted around the country couldn’t have realised that this new arrival would become the driving force of the law changes they’d wanted for so long.

Once established, those uniform laws needed to ban all semi-automatic rifles, shotguns and assault weapons. The guns that were allowed had to be registered by their owners. And those owners, be they farmers, hunters, collectors or sportspeople, had to provide proof of their reasons to have a gun.

As a side note, a saving grace for Australia has been that here, we have never accepted self-defence as a reason to own a gun, unlike the US where self-defence is a fundamental argument in favour of guns. This is a reason why so many Americans take gun control as an affront.

Peters’ thesis provided her with in-depth knowledge

Photographs of Peters tend to show her as serious, contemplative and worried. In person, she is in fact brightly engaging and someone who likes to laugh. But when talking about the issues that are important to her, she becomes the focussed and articulate Rebecca Peters who, after Port Arthur, did hundreds of interviews, made numerous speeches and relentlessly lobbied politicians around the country.

Significantly, her investigations gave Peters her first contact with Australia’s small gun control movement. But it was the Central Coast massacre in 1992 that first introduced her to the news-watching public. Peters could speak knowledgably to the media about the gun laws because she was writing her law thesis on the New South Wales gun laws after Strathfield. Terrigal demonstrated one of the laws’ greatest failings.

In the beach town of Terrigal, about 95 kms north of Sydney, a man went on a shooting spree, killing six people.

The murderer, Malcolm Baker, now serving life in prison, was known to police as a violent man who owned guns. After Baker had a domestic dispute, the police raided his home to pre-emptively to confiscate his guns. The problem was, the NSW gun laws at the time didn’t require that guns be registered, so the police didn’t know how many Baker had. They confiscated the five they found. He owned six.

Political organisers and galvanising action

In the years after the Central Coast massacre, Peters and her colleagues at the Coalition for Gun Control, laid out a game plan for the next mass shooting. So when Port Arthur occurred, the activity in that University room might have been frantic (engaging the media and politicians, producing pamphlets, managing the waves of people offering to help, and organising a massive rally to take place in Sydney) but it wasn’t chaotic.

A saving grace for Australia has been that here, we have never accepted self-defence as a reason to own a gun, unlike the US where self-defence is a fundamental argument in favour of guns.

Rebecca Peters

As part of Peters’ review of the organisation’s strategies, she put together a shopping list of essential tasks: all Gun Coalition communications were made media-ready and easy for journalists to use. Any organisation that might have an interest in gun control – banking and police unions, medical associations, churches, women’s groups, charities – were contacted. At the time of Port Arthur, 350 of them were ready to react with a clear and unified voice demanding change.

Then there was the tricky part: the specifics of the changes they were asking for. The list had to be short so the media could easily report it and politicians could more easily say yes to it.

First and foremost: uniform gun laws across the country. But the Federal government could only regulate gun importation. Each State had its own laws around the purchase and use of guns. Luckily, most State governments at the time were of John Howard’s Liberal party, so his election victory gave him great powers of persuasion, and to his eternal credit, he used them.

Reforming the law

As Australia was deciding what to do after Port Arthur, many of the discussions were informed by well thought out documents and ideas from the Coalition of Gun Control. The group had already looked at every state’s gun laws, saw what worked and didn’t work, and fashioned a proposal for broadly acceptable national standards.

This meant governments didn’t start from a place of ignorance. They had in front of them, an array of documents addressing all the main issues including the findings of the numerous, previous gun law enquiries whose recommendations had mostly been ignored. This was crucial in that it prevented yet another dead-end enquiry being called.

The closed-door backdrop to all this was intense, disproportionate pressure from the small but powerful pro-gun lobby. But the grief and anger of the nation was so loud that the public good, in this case, won out.

On May 10 1996, just 12 days after the Port Arthur outrage, Australia’s state and federal governments agreed to make their gun laws uniform. Over following years, each parliament enacted the laws that are now a source of some international envy and true national pride.

Reunited after 25 years

Of the many who helped, four in particular stood strongly with Rebecca Peters.

Rebecca Peters, Jennifer Giles, Julia Tsalis.

The team that worked long hours together.

(Front) Rebecca Peters AO. (Left) Jennifer Giles (LLB ’85, BA ’94). Now, a magistrate. Then, on loan from the Women’s Legal Centre, so the only one paid. “I’ve heard Australians overseas skite about our gun laws, but it was touch and go.” (Right) Julia Tsalis. Now, the Program Manager, Writing NSW. Then, just returned from the US. “I didn’t want to live in a place where kids had to go through a metal detector to go to school.”

Simon Chapman and Stephen Leeder

Essential in advancing the cause.

(Left) Simon Chapman AO (PhD ’86). Now, Emeritus Professor School of Public Health. Then, Assoc. Prof., School of Public Health and Co-Convenor, Coalition for Gun Control. “I remember the overwhelming public support, political unity and relentless advocacy. (Right) Stephen Leeder AO (BSc(MedSci) ’64, MBBS ’66, PhD ’75, MD ’06). Now, Emeritus Professor Menzies Centre for Health Policy. Then, Dean, Faculty of Medicine; provided the room at the Edward Ford Building. “My colleagues would argue that gun control was not a matter of public health.”


CONTINUE THE DISCUSSION

Join us on Tuesday 27 April for a seminar discussion on Australia’s firearm policy response to the Port Arthur Massacre, its impact over the past quarter century and the future of firearm injury prevention.


Written by George Dodd for the Sydney Alumni Magazine.

Portrait photography by Louise M Cooper.

Hero photo by Jay Rembert on Unsplash.

/University Release. This material comes from the originating organization and may be of a point-in-time nature, edited for clarity, style and length. View in full here.