MARTIN Bryant: the very name can elicit a shiver up a spine, a tear from the eye and enduring heartache over the senseless theft of innocent lives.

Even 20 years on from the Port Arthur massacre, the country still mourns those 35 people whose futures were snuffed out by a twisted man with a gun.

Crazed killer Martin Bryant.
Crazed killer Martin Bryant.

Australian contemporary historian, RMIT University adjunct professor Stephen Alomes said it was fitting to discuss Australia's darkest day with Anzac Day commemorations still fresh in the nation's minds.

"Our whole Australian story is that when there is bloodshed and gore, it is normally overseas," he said.

"Except for the Aboriginal point of view, basically all of our wars have been fought abroad. We see ourself as a very peaceful country, so that added to the shock."

On April 28 and 29, 1996, Martin Bryant was responsible for the worst bloodshed on Australian soil since the frontier wars.

It began at a guesthouse owned by David and Sally Martin, who had bought the property despite Bryant's father's desire to own it.

Bryant blamed the Martins for the depression that pushed his father to suicide in 1993. He shot the couple and continued to a nearby cafe, where he sat and calmly ordered a meal.

Once finished, he set up a video camera on a table, unzipped his blue duffel bag and pulled out an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle, peppering tourists and staff with bullets.

He killed 12 before fleeing in his car, taking pot-shots at others as he drove past, killing four.

Just a few hundred metres down the road, he murdered a woman and her baby, then chased down the child's older sister and shot her dead.

He then stole a BMW after killing its four occupants, stuffing another man into the car's boot before executing the man's wife.

Bryant returned to the scene of his first murders - that bed and breakfast property his dad had wanted - and began an 18-hour stand-off with police.

At some point he murdered his hostage, finally setting the building on fire and attempting to escape in the ensuing melee.

So ended the worst mass murder in modern Australian history, but the sorrow was lasting - especially for those left behind in Tasmania.

"I think we live more in a world of media darkness than true darkness," Dr Alomes said.

"We see all these things through the media, but in practice I think it has more local effects than on our national psyche.

"But it certainly still affects Tasmanians today."

The portrait of the killer that emerged in the following years was of a lonely outcast with the intelligence equivalent to a child's. A man who treated mass murder like a schoolyard prank.

Martin Bryant will never again walk free: small consolation for the families of the 35 people he killed, but some meagre comfort all the same.

Howard's astonishing tough sell worked

WITH a bulletproof vest concealed under his brown sports jacket, John Howard stood in front of a hostile crowd at a pro-gun rally in Sale, Victoria to explain his ban on semi-automatic rifles.

It was 1996, just after the Port Arthur massacre, and the prime minister faced a tough sell to the unsympathetic group of shooters.

After 20 years of nationwide gun control, the debate remains as divisive as ever.

Mr Howard has not changed his tune. Just this month he called for gun laws to be tightened even further to close a loophole that would allow the sale of Adler A110 lever-action shotguns.

"It's far harder to kill 10 people with a knife than it is to kill 10 people with a gun," he told SBS program Insight.

The former PM has the support of RMIT University adjunct professor Stephen Alomes.

"John Howard showed astonishing leadership back then," Dr Alomes said.

"We know that a lot of guns are illegally circulating today but the buyback was a great thing."

Dr Alomes said the program's success was all the more impressive given that shooting is an ingrained facet of rural Australian culture.

Port Arthur survivor Carolyn Loughton, whose 15-year-old daughter was killed in the slaughter, is one of the faces for the push to ban the Adler A110.

She has launched an online petition to have a temporary ban on the gun extended indefinitely.

She said the gun could shoot seven bullets in seven seconds, similar to a pump action shotgun.

"It is the kind of weapon that was highly restricted after the Port Arthur massacre, yet by anomaly, it can be purchased easily if it is allowed into Australia as it would today be a Category A weapon," Ms Loughton said.

"We, the people of Australia, remember the victims of massacres at Hoddle St, Monash University, Port Arthur and Martin Place.

"Never again."

Liberal Democrat Senator David Leyonhjelm this month forced the Federal Government to roll over, threatening to support Labor amendments to migration legislation unless a sunset clause on the weapon's ban was introduced.

The temporary ban is now due to expire in a year.

"As part of the deal, I was able to get a commitment from the government for regular consultation with firearms groups," Senator Leyonhjelm said.

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