I REMEMBER exactly where I was on 28 April 1996 when the news started filtering in. It was a Sunday lunchtime and I was in the newsroom of the daily newspaper I was working for at the time.
You expect bad news in a newsroom. It’s a magnet for it. In 1996, of course, we didn’t have the resources that modern newsrooms have – barely any internet, let alone social media, or text messages. Nevertheless, there were televisions on, radios blaring in different corners, telephones ringing and the news dribbled in through the afternoon.
It was a different feeling, not something we expected to see on home soil. Even then we were used to seeing such horrors coming out of the United States, but in Australia? Not on this scale – 35 dead, and countless other lives shattered.
There’s another 20th anniversary intimately related to the Port Arthur tragedy and that’s the signing of the National Firearms Agreement (NFA) by the Commonwealth, states and territories. The NFA was borne from Australian Prime Minister John Howard’s tough stance on reforming the national gun laws, banning automatic and semi-automatic rifles and shotguns, and introducing national firearms licensing, a waiting period, security and storage requirements, sales regulation, and compulsory buybacks of banned weapons.
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On 23 May, the MJA will publish online a “For debate” article which details the lessons still to be learned from Port Arthur and the NFA. The authors are Dr Michael Dudley, a senior staff specialist at the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service at the Prince of Wales and Sydney Children’s Hospitals, Professor Alan Rosen, a professorial fellow at the University of Wollongong’s School of Public Health, Associate Professor Philip Alpers, from the University of Sydney’s School of Public Health, and Ms Rebecca Peters, a graduate student at the University of Sydney’s Centre for Disability Research and Policy.
The authors address the gun lobby’s claims that gun violence is attributable to mental illness, not gun ownership, and ask what role health professionals can play “in working with legal authorities to monitor and assist regulation of firearm access, especially among high-risk populations”.
“Clinician involvement must be complemented by wider gun control measures. The gun lobby’s turning the firearms availability debate into a question about whether people with mental illness histories should access such weapons is a calculated appeal to prejudice,” they write.
Complacency has “somewhat eroded” the NFA and it needs “review, revision and tightening”.
We invite you to read the complete article on 23 May and add your thoughts in the responses section on the MJA website. Here at MJA InSight, we will be talking to other experts in the field to find out how GPs and other health professionals can contribute to the national debate on gun control.
Cate Swannell is editor of MJA InSight, and is news and online editor for the MJA.