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Photo taken from behind Prime Minister Howard who is wearing a bullet-proof vest under his jacket. Facing Howard is a crowd, some of whom are holding placards.
Prime Minister John Howard faces gun owners at a pro-gun rally in the Victorian town of Sale, 1996

On 28 April 1996, 35 people were killed and many more injured in a mass shooting at the historic Port Arthur tourist precinct in south-east Tasmania.

Armed with three high-powered firearms, the perpetrator murdered the owners of a nearby guesthouse before driving to Port Arthur where he shot multiple visitors and staff in and around the site. The young Hobart man later murdered a hostage at the guesthouse, before he was captured by police as he fled the building.

The massacre provoked national debate about private ownership of guns, especially automatic weapons.

Within weeks of the tragedy, Australian Prime Minister John Howard implemented critical changes to gun safety legislation with bipartisan state, territory and Commonwealth support. The endorsement offered by Coalition partner and Nationals leader Tim Fischer, and Labor’s Kim Beazley, leader of the Opposition, was crucial to achieving the reforms.

In November 1996 the perpetrator was sentenced to imprisonment with no eligibility for parole on 73 charges, including 35 life sentences for murder.

Australian firearms laws

Before 1996, Australia’s states and territories had differing laws relating to gun ownership.

Colonial gun laws were inherited from British common law, with very few changes made to develop local licensing provisions. During the earliest phases of colonialisation, access to guns was limited to settlers, police and military personnel overseeing convicts.

When firearms became more commonly used – for hunting, protection and keeping pests away from crops and livestock – instances of criminal misuse increased, for example by bushrangers and among some violent mining communities.

Many thousands of people from First Nations communities were killed by armed colonists in frontier conflicts.

Government control over the purchase and use of weapons increased during the early decades of the 20th century, in response to outbreaks of criminal activity in larger cities. By the mid-20th century, gun regulation across the country was powerfully influenced by growing groups of recreational shooters and wildlife preservationists.

Although the Commonwealth government had banned the import of military-style, rapid-firing weapons in 1991, many remained in circulation, unregistered or unsafely stored. Some state politicians advanced aspects of gun safety but they were often defeated by powerful pro-gun lobby groups.

In some parts of early 1990s Australia, any person with a regular shooters licence could legally hold any number of rapid-fire weapons and ammunition. Tasmania had the weakest guns laws in the country.

A person is filming a group of people looking at several guns on top of a table outside Australian Parliament House.
Media coverage of the Australasian Police Ministers' Council meeting at Parliament House, Canberra, 1996

Gun buyback scheme

The National Firearms Agreement included a ‘buyback’ scheme to remove privately owned weapons from circulation, funded by an increase to taxes. An amnesty provision allowed gun-owners to surrender newly banned weapons without legal consequences. Some received financial compensation.

During the buyback, more than 650,000 firearms – both banned and legal – were surrendered to the police or destroyed.

Impact of tighter gun laws in Australia

John Howard’s stance on gun law reforms remains one of the most celebrated aspects of his term as prime minister and is a watershed in Australian history.

John Howard, House of Representatives, Australian Parliament House, 6 May 1996:

I have some understanding of the depth of community feeling on this issue and a desire, as I find it amongst my fellow Australians, to grab this very tragic moment to bring about a profound cultural shift in the attitude of this community towards the possession and the use of destructive weapons.

In the wake of the tragedy at Port Arthur, gun safety became an issue of national concern and one that was less easily appropriated by politicians of varying perspectives.

Adherence to National Firearms Agreement regulations differ across states and territories, where community attitudes vary on aspects including issuing licences to supervised children, waiving the cooling-off period and the continuing use of high-powered weapons by shooting club members.

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Alannah and Madeline Foundation

John Howard on guns, politics and power, 2016, ABC

A brief outline of events on 28 April 1996, Port Arthur Historic Sites

1996 National Firearms Agreement, Attorney-General’s Department (PDF 225kb) on Trove

Philip Alpers, ‘The big melt: How one democracy changed after scrapping a third of its firearms’, 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.

Simon Chapman, Over Our Dead Bodies: Port Arthur and Australia's Fight for Gun Control, Sydney University Press, 2013.

Andrew Leigh and Christine Neill, ‘Do gun buybacks save lives? Evidence from panel data’, in American Law and Economics Review, vol. 12, no. 2, pp 509–557, 2010.

Rebecca Peters, ‘Rational firearm regulation: Evidence-based gun laws in Australia’, 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.

Updated: 6 September 2023
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