Martin John Bryant was born in May of 1967 in Hobart, Tasmania, Australia, the oldest son of Maurice and Carleen Bryant. Martin consistently broke his toys and once yanked the snorkel from another child while he was diving. He tortured animals, was obsessed with fire, and had an IQ of 66, about the equivalent of an 11-year-old.
Bryant was unsuccessful in school and was too socially awkward to maintain normal friendships. However, in early 1987 at age 19 he met a 54-year-old woman named Helen Mary Elizabeth Harvey. Ms. Harvey had inherited a share of the Tattersall’s lottery fortune and was both eccentric and wealthy. Tattersall’s is a conglomerate that has a functional monopoly on the lottery system in Australia.
Harvey maintained 14 dogs and 30 cats in a run-down mansion owned by her ailing mother. She invited Bryant to move in with her, and the two of them bought some thirty new cars over a three-year period. They traveled widely together and spent money with wanton abandon. Throughout it all Martin Bryant was persistently both strange and violent.
In 1992 Martin and Helen were driving on a rural road when Helen swerved the car into oncoming traffic and was killed. Martin Bryant suffered a severe back injury and required seven months in hospital to recover. Previously Bryant had been known to lunge for the steering wheel while a passenger in a car and had already precipitated three automobile accidents. Helen Harvey left the entirety of her estate, some $550,000, to Martin.
Two months later Martin’s father Maurice went missing. Divers eventually found him at the bottom of a pond with one of Martin’s scuba weight belts wrapped around his neck. The police declared the death a suicide. With the death of his father, Martin acquired another quarter-million dollar.
Martin grew ever more despondent and began to drink heavily and daily. Soon after New Year in 1996, he began planning his bloody masterwork. He confided to a neighbor, “I’ll do something that will make everyone remember me.”
Martin Bryant’s father had complained incessantly that a local couple, David and Noelene Martin, had somehow cheated the Bryant clan by buying a nearby bed and breakfast called Seascape. On April 28, 1996, Martin drove to David and Noelene’s home and killed them both.
Bryant then proceeded to the Port Arthur Historic Site, a popular nearby tourist destination, interacting with several people along the way. Some of these witnesses later described him as rude, while others said he was friendly. Bryant parked his car near a café on the premises. He then entered the restaurant carrying a large black bag, bought lunch, and ate it in a leisurely fashion at an outdoor table.
During his meal, Bryant made small talk with the other people in the cafe. He responsibly returned his tray and retrieved a Colt SP-1 AR-15 Carbine equipped with a 3x Colt scope and 30-round magazine from his bag. In the fifteen seconds that followed Martin Bryant fired seventeen rounds and killed twelve people, wounding another ten.
Bryant then made his way into the gift shop where he fired a dozen rounds, killing another eight people and wounded two more. His victims were hemmed in and helpless. Many of the dead were shot at extremely close range. Bryant reloaded his rifle in the gift shop and left the empty magazine on the checkout counter.
Bryant then moved to the car park. He fired at Ashley Law, a site employee, at a range of about 75 meters but missed. After sowing mayhem throughout the car lot he returned to his vehicle and exchanged his AR-15 for an L1A1 SLR rifle. By the time he grew weary of the car park, he had killed another six people and wounded the same number.
Bryant then mounted his car and headed down the drive away from the Historic Site.
On the way, he encountered a young mother with two children aged 3 and 6. This stupid monster exited his car and shot the three of them at contact range.
Once at the toll booth leading into the facility Bryant stopped a BMW, killing its four occupants. He loaded his weapons, a pair of handcuffs, and an extra fuel can from his own vehicle into the BMW before speeding off. He left behind a Daewoo USAS-12 shotgun. By now he had killed 33 and wounded 19.
Bryant stopped at a nearby gas station and confronted a couple there. For reasons unknown, he forced the male half of the pair into the boot of his stolen BMW and killed the man’s girlfriend. The service station attendant had a rifle, but Bryant was gone by the time he could retrieve ammunition and get it loaded.
Bryant then returned to Seascape, shooting and injuring several bystanders along the way. Once back at the bed and breakfast he handcuffed his prisoner to a stair railing and incinerated the BMW. The following morning, having murdered his hostage and now surrounded by police, Martin Bryant set fire to the building. He taunted the cops to “come and get him.”
The police let the building burn around him. Bryant eventually fled the conflagration with his clothes alight. The cops found the remains of his two rifles in the burned out building.
ArmaLite designed the original 5.56mm AR-15 in the mid-1950s. “AR” stands for “ArmaLite Rifle,” a designation that persists to the present. ArmaLite sold the manufacturing rights to the AR-15 to Colt’s Manufacturing Company in 1959. Colt sold the first semiautomatic AR-15 rifles to the public in 1964.
Original AR-15 rifles featured a fixed polymer stock and a 20-inch barrel. Colt eventually offered a carbine version of the weapon with a collapsible aluminum buttstock and 16-inch thin-profile barrel. The stubby little 3X Colt scope featured a fixed magnification and built-in mechanical bullet drop compensator.
The SLR or “Self-Loading Rifle” was the British version of the Belgian-designed FN-FAL that saw military use from 1954 to the present. The SLR was also known at the C1A1 in Canadian parlance or the “Inch Pattern” FAL in the US. The FAL saw service with seventy different militaries to include the Australian Army.
The SLR is a 7.62x51mm semiautomatic gas-operated autoloader that features a tilting breechblock and feeds from a twenty-round box magazine. The SLR is a large rifle at 45 inches long and 9.56 pounds empty. The SLR served in the British Army until it was replaced by the L85A1 in 1984. In 1989 the Australian military replaced the SLR with the F88 Austeyr, an Australian-produced version of the Steyr AUG.
The Port Arthur Massacre precipitated a nationwide transformation in the Australian public’s perceptions of firearms. Tasmania, where the massacre occurred, had previously been a predominantly rural bastion of gun ownership. Australian State governments passed laws to give effect to the sweeping National Firearms Agreement a mere twelve days after the massacre.
The Australian NFA placed tight restrictions on the ownership of semi and fully automatic weapons. As a result of the act, the Australian government bought back and destroyed 643,000 firearms for a total cost of $350 million. The money for this program came from a temporary increase in the Australian Medicare levy.
As a result of the NFA, there is currently a nationwide firearms registry as well as a 28-day waiting period on the purchase of firearms. The law stipulates storage requirements and demands a “genuine reason” for ownership. Self-defense is not an acceptable justification. As of 2014, there were at least 260,000 unregistered illegal firearms in circulation in Australia. Scholarly works undertaken since then have been inconclusive regarding the law’s effect on crime.
I was a soldier in 1997 and undertook a joint operation with the Australian Army soon after the NFA took effect. I recall passing Aussie gun shops that were boarded up and shuttered as a result of the legislation. The Australian soldiers with whom I worked, most of whom were politically conservative, deeply lamented the demise of their liberty. Today, some twenty-three years later, 85% of Australians feel that the NFA is either appropriate or too lenient. After two decades of acclimation, only 6% of citizens believe that the statutes are excessively restrictive.
Studying the dispassionate slaughter wrought by Martin Bryant was a tough read. His victims ranged in age from 72 down to 3. The most compelling aspect of the carnage to me, however, was the sheer helplessness of the victims. His targets fought back with foul language, profound bravery, and dinner trays, but they were all utterly helpless.
There are nearly 400 million firearms in America. The Australian government bought back 643,000 guns after their NFA. At the apogee of the Obama Presidency, there were that many NICS checks in the US in nine days. An Australia-style gun buyback is a physical impossibility in the United States.
Martin Bryant pled guilty and received 35 life sentences and 1,035 years in prison. He remains in solitary confinement in Hobart’s Risdon Prison today. The profound effects this one psychopath had on Australian culture will never be undone.