Tasmanians relive trauma as gun killer is sentenced

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The Independent Online
It was the worst crime in modern Australian history and one of the most shocking anywhere. After Martin Bryant, 29, was sentenced to life imprisonment yesterday for shooting dead 35 people at Port Arthur last April, relief flowed from Tasmania to the rest of Australia. But the island state's sense of shame and trauma may never dissipate.

In the six months since Bryant calmly opened fire with two semi-automatic rifles on people enjoying a sunny Sunday at the 19th-century British convict prison site, scars have formed on the survivors and their families that will never heal.

They have suffered nightmares, mental flashbacks, depression, eating disorders and suicidal tendencies. When Mr Justice William Cox, Tasmania's chief judge, sentenced Bryant to life imprisonment for each of the 35 murders, and to 21 years in prison for each of 37 other offences, the judge said it would be difficult to imagine a more chilling catalogue of crime.

"The repercussions of these crimes have been felt world-wide," the judge said. "The community at large has felt shock and disbelief that criminal conduct on this scale could happen in Australia, let alone Tasmania." While the judge conceded Bryant had had a disturbed childhood, he knew he was doing wrong, showed no remorse and eventually pleaded guilty only because of the strength of the case against him.

Port Arthur is an isolated community of a few hundred people on the Tasman Peninsula south of Hobart, the island state's capital. At a press conference after the sentencing, people from the community talked of their trauma. Some said they wished Bryant could have been sentenced to death, a penalty outlawed in Australia. Others said they "felt nothing" for him. "We want to forget him," said one.

Port Arthur had lost its innocence long before Bryant went on his rampage. Almost half the British convicts transported to Australia in the 19th century were dumped in Tasmania, the farthest point from Britain on earth. Thousands ended up at Port Arthur, one of the most infamous prisons of all.

Bryant's sentence -"for the term of his natural life" - had a certain historical resonance. This phrase is the title of 19th century Australia's greatest novel in which Marcus Clarke, a journalist, exposed the violence and brutality of the convict system. Peter MacFie, a former Port Arthur historian, noted yesterday: "History has a habit of repeating itself at Port Arthur. Although nothing can compare with the satanical efficiency of an Armalite rifle, weapons and flogging, intimidation and bullied silence were part of the armoury at the former convict station. Guns and force backed the whole regime."

Yesterday it was revealed that Bryant had told his doctor a few years ago that he "felt like going around killing people". Nothing was reported to the authorities. Without holding a gun licence, Bryant had bought from a Hobart gun dealer an Armalite AR-15 .223 calibre semi-automatic rifle, a military-style .308 semi-automatic rifle and a Daiwoo 12 gauge semi- automatic shotgun. Neighbours in Hobart, where he lived at the time of the killings, complained to police when they saw him brandishing the guns on occasions. Nothing was done.

Bryant carried all three weapons to Port Arthur, and used two to shoot his victims dead, 12 of them within 15 seconds.

Something drew Bryant to Port Arthur for his killing spree. "A lot of violence has happened there," he told a prison psychiatrist. "It must be the most violent place in Australia. It seemed the right place." He said that he expected to be shot dead in the mayhem his shootings unleashed.

One positive thing has emerged from the slaughter. Australians have united on the question of gun control, and all six states have passed, or ar are passing, laws banning the sale of the types of weapons Bryant used.

And now tourists are returning to Port Arthur. The Broad Arrow Cafe, where 20 of Bryant's 35 victims died where they sat or stood, will be partly demolished next month. A monument to the victims will be erected facing the prison ruins.