The possible loosening of gun control laws raised its menacing head in Tasmania during the 2018 state election.
As most Australians remember, in April 1996, 35 people were killed and 23 wounded at Port Arthur, Tasmania by a lone gunman with a high powered semi-automatic rifle. One individual with a lethal weapon caused the largest loss of life (from gun violence) that Australia had ever experienced.
The massacre at Port Arthur resulted in support from all sides of politics and state governments across the political spectrum to pass into law the National Firearms Programme Implementation Agreement. This law restricted the ownership of private semiautomatic rifles, shotguns and pump shot guns, and introduced national uniform gun licensing.
Australia has not experienced such a massive loss of life due to gun violence since 1996.
But in Tasmania, the prospect of loosening of gun laws was raised just before the March 2018 Tasmanian state election. Just days before the election, it came to public attention that the police minister had promised the Tasmanian gun lobby and other groups that certain aspects of the national firearms laws would be relaxed. This included allowing ownership of silencers, allowing pump action shot guns and self-loading rifles (category C firearms) to be used by farmers (and agricultural workers), doubling the licensing duration from five to 10 years for some category C firearms, and relaxing penalties for minor gun storage offences.
As expected, there was a significant uproar from the Tasmanian community, including from gun control advocates, ANMF, health professionals and those who had been directly or indirectly affected by the Port Arthur Massacre.
On Friday 17 August the Tasmanian Premier announced he would no longer pursue gun law changes until a Legislative Council Inquiry had been completed.
He did however state future changes were not off the table. And this is of concern.
Australians understand that allowing high powered weapons into the community will change the nation.
Using the US as an example, easy access to these weapons enables frequent mass shootings and a society that becomes anaesthetised to such events and normalised to gun violence.
The media chronicles the outcomes of violence to our community, but there is one group who is rarely acknowledged as a casualty – the first responders, and in particular, nurses.
Nurses are at the coalface in all areas of health, and sometimes we are the only health professional available to manage the physical and mental wounds of those who stagger through the door.
In 1996 at the Royal Hobart Hospital, nurses dealt directly with the result of this inconceivable gun violence. Nurses in ED, ICU, OT and on the ward had to triage, treat, bind the wounds, wash the deceased and hold the hands of the wounded.
A colleague who was working on that day shared her personal experience:
“It’s been 22 years since Port Arthur and the emotions are still raw. As well as treating the injured, we had to deal with an angry public due to the offender being treated for his injuries in our hospital, intrusive media, and a hospital that was full of police and security. As nurses, we had to treat all the injured without fear or favour, and this included the offender and those who had been injured”.
What stood out most powerfully for me about this moment was how my colleague’s body language altered as she spoke. It appeared as if a surge of adrenaline had entered her bloodstream. Before she spoke, she became quiet, sighed and revealed that 100 metre stare. Her words and body language moved me and I reflected on how trauma, like gun violence, can have long impacts, possibly scarring individuals forever.
Australia, fortunately, does not nurture the same gun culture as in the US, and it is not embedded into our psyche and identity. We understand that guns do have a role in some aspects of our country, such as on farms, in sport shooting and for genuine antique collectors. From 1996 to 2016, gun deaths in Australia halved (gunpolicy.org/firearms/region/australia).
The ANMF Tasmanian Branch has put in a submission to a Legislative Council Inquiry, opposing proposed changes to Tasmanian gun laws. The submissions to the Inquiry can be found at parliament.tas.gov.au/ctee/Council/LC%20Select%20Firearms%20Law%20Reforms.
Although the Tasmanian government has momentarily stepped back from changes on gun laws in Tasmania, the Premier has not fully committed to never making changes. He has publicly stated he will review his position after the Legislative Council Inquiry.
The Premier’s reconsideration is a powerful example of how organised public opposition can change the mind of any elected official. In Tasmania, the ANMF, with other unions and a group called Medics for Gun Control lobbied the state government to maintain the strength of Tasmania’s gun laws. This united stand shifted government policy.