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Tasmanian admits gun massacre

Relief swept across the island of Tasmania yesterday when Martin Bryant, the man who massacred 35 people at Port Arthur six months ago, pleaded guilty in court to all charges against him over the world's biggest mass shooting by a lone gunman.

Staff at Port Arthur, the 19th-century prison for transported British convicts, which is now one of Australia's chief tourist attractions, could barely contain their emotions when the news came through.

They opened bottles of champagne, donned party hats and closed their doors early to hold a celebratory barbecue on the lawn by the seafront where they had watched in horror on Sunday, 28 April, as Bryant stalked through the crowded site, armed with two semi-automatic weapons, shooting tourists and Port Arthur employees at random.

Bryant, 29, admitted to 72 charges over the Port Arthur killings when he appeared in the Tasmanian Supreme Court in Hobart, for the start of what was expected to be an agonising trial, at which hundreds of witnesses were due to be called to relive the horrors of modern Australia's worst massacre.

Only two months ago, he had pleaded not guilty to the same charges. Bryant's lawyer resigned soon afterwards.

The unemployed Hobart man, with long blonde hair, said to be a millionaire from inherited money and property, smirked and laughed as he stood in the dock yesterday, shielded by bullet-proof glass, and answered "Guilty" to each of the charges. People in the public gallery wept. Some relatives and friends of the victims fled sobbing from the court.

After Bryant's dramatic change of plea, John Avery, his new lawyer, said: "We have been doing a lot of talking over the last few weeks. I am gratified that the right decision has now been made." Mr Justice Cox, Tasmania's chief justice, will sentence Bryant on 19 November. The judge issued an edict to staff at Port Arthur not to comment until he hands down his sentence.

But the reaction was already clear. "We're immensely relieved," said David McDonald, a tour guide. "We were dreading the anguish of going through all this in court again. Now we can try to get back to normal." Walter Mikac, a pharmacist whose wife and two young daughters were among those whom Bryant murdered, said Australia must now turn its attention to tightening its gun laws so that a similar massacre never happens again.

Since the Port Arthur massacre, Australians have surrendered more than 130,000 guns under an amnesty introduced as part of a bid to reform the country's lax firearms laws. The weapons are crushed or cut in two before the owner's eyes, then tossed into an ever- increasing stockpile of scrap metal. The federal government in Canberra has taxed every Australian to build a fund of A$500,000 (pounds 250,000) to compensate gun owners under the amnesty, which runs until next October.

Gun laws are the province of Australia's six states. Their notorious reluctance to tighten their laws was shattered by Port Arthur, and most states have since introduced legislation to ban semi-automatic, military- style weapons of the type that Bryant, and gunmen in earlier mass shootings in Sydney and Melbourne, used. Tasmania, which once had the weakest laws, now has some of the toughest. Almost 10,000 banned guns have been surrendered in that state.

However, the surrendered guns are thought to be the tip of an iceberg. Estimates of the number of guns in Australia range from four to 10 million. The rural-based gun lobby is urging people to bury their guns rather than hand them in. And the Australian Coalition for Gun Control has criticised the new laws for still allowing large-scale and semi-automatic pistols, of the type Britain has banned since the Cullen report.

Roland Browne, the coalition's deputy chairman, said in Tasmania yesterday: "Our new gun laws have brought us up to the point that Britain was at before the Cullen report. Australia should draw on the Dunblane experience to minimise the availability of guns."