It was the country's sixth mass shooting spree in six years, leaving a trail of 39 deaths. There were calls last night for strict controls on gun ownership in the wake of public outrage at the killings. Gun laws have been tightened since earlier shootings, but they have failed to stem an alarming spread of firearms in a country that once shunned them.
One in four Australians now owns a gun, up from one in six 13 years ago. Further attempts to restrict firearms in Australia are being fought by a politically powerful gun lobby centred on sporting groups and farmers.
Most of the earlier mass shootings happened in crowded streets and shopping malls in Sydney and Melbourne, prompting demands that firearms be banned from cities. Yesterday's drama differed from the others in that it involved three men on a desperate chase through country roads, towns and highways pursued by police across three states.
The spree ended last night when two of the men gave themselves up and the other was cornered by police in the deserted farmhouse of a cattle property at Hanging Rock in northern New South Wales. There was a twist to the climax when television journalists reporters phoned the fugitives and played tapes of their conversations on news broadcasts.
Where the men came from remained a mystery, but they left five bodies along their trail. The first was that of a 14-year-old pregnant girl, whose charred remains were found on a southern Queensland farm on Sunday. Yesterday, three miners were found shot dead, two later hurled over a cliff, at Armidale, a town near Hanging Rock. The fifth victim, a helicopter mechanic, was murdered last week near Mount Isa in Queensland.
Two of the fugitives, Leonard Leadbeater, 41, and Robert Steele, 22, described themselves in the television conversations as psychopaths and 'sociopaths' who had 'homicidal and suicidal urges'.
The men took two children as hostages after the girl's killing, but released them from the farmhouse yesterday. Raymond Bassett, 25, surrendered before the children were released, and Robert Steele gave up several hours afterwards. But Mr Leadbeater said: 'I don't kill people under 12 . . . I'd rather be down in South Australia killing cops. I ain't going out without a fight. I'm going to make sure they kill me.'