The pain and grief of relatives of those killed, and of the wounded and psychologically harmed at Port Arthur 25 years ago continues.
So too does the will to hold onto what was achieved in the aftermath of all that suffering – gun legislation that is the envy of the world. The Parliamentary Friends of Gun Control – established in September 2019 – helps guard against the erosion of those laws.
A founding member of the group, Labor MP Dr Andrew Leigh has a very personal connection to the issue.
As a summer clerk at a Sydney law firm in 1996, Dr Leigh was being mentored by young lawyer Zoe Hall. Zoe and her boyfriend Glenn Pears holidayed in Tasmania and sadly visited Port Arthur on the day of the mass shooting.
The young couple were among the 35 people who were murdered that April day.
Dr Leigh’s concerns about the proliferation of guns in Australia had begun in the years prior to Zoe’s death.
“I was always concerned. Growing up I was aware of it, as mass shootings were prominent in my childhood. It seemed the proliferation of guns must be contributing to the spate of shootings,” Dr Leigh says.
The high number of fatalities and injuries at Port Arthur brought that into sharp focus and forged a political bipartisanship that was able to bring about the National Firearms Agreement.
“The National Firearms Agreement is an important legacy. It was landmark public policy that undoubtedly saved lives,” he says.
As an economics professor, Dr Leigh became interested in its impact on shooting death numbers in Australia.
“In the decade following Port Arthur, there were no mass shootings. Since then, there have been two – both family murder-suicides,” he says.
“However, mass shootings are a small part of gun deaths.”
He and Wilfrid Laurier University economist Christine Neill studied the states and territories to find out if the guns buy-back impacted homicide and suicide rates.
Their findings showed it did. In Tasmania, where the largest number of guns were handed in, the suicide and homicide rate decline was greatest and in the ACT, where the buyback had the smallest effect, there was a lesser drop.
“Overall, we estimated that the National Firearms Agreement saved around 200 lives a year,” Dr Leigh says.
All of those who have long been campaigning for gun control believe this a legacy worth protecting.
The Parliamentary Friends of Gun Control wants Australia “to remain steady as a beacon for gun control”.
The risk of legislation being eroded or laws failing to keep pace with weapons technology is real.
“We saw that debate flare up around the Adler shotgun recently. There are also donations from the gun lobby to various politicians and 3D printed weapons is something that will need to be contained,” Dr Leigh says.
But, he remains positive.
“The broad consensus for balanced gun control remains. And we have a strong culture in Australia that we don’t need to loosen controls on handguns.
“I make the point again and again, including in America when I am asked, that what we did after Port Arthur saved lives.”
At the establishment of the Parliamentary Friends of Gun Control, the group pledged to “remember the tragedy of Port Arthur and the reforms that followed”, and ensure the needs of sporting shooters don’t outweigh the demands of the community to be safe.
Dr Leigh believes this can be achieved.
“I’m okay with driving in my neighbourhood, past the pistol club or the rifle range where people are shooting for sport, maybe training for an Olympic team placement.
“But I know that it’s unlikely my neighbour has a gun tucked away that could be used in a deadlier way – maybe by a suicidal teenager or an angry spouse,” he says.
And if further incentive was needed, Dr Leigh thinks often of Zoe and all those whose lives were cut short 25 years ago.
“She would be 53 years old now and I like to think she’d have a family and still be a smiling, wonderfully inspiring lawyer, leading a team.”