Carolyn Loughton flung herself on top of her daughter when a gunman with a high-powered rifle opened fire on a group of tourists in Australia, but it was not enough to save Sarah’s life. The shooting, in a café in the Tasmanian town of Port Arthur in April 1996, resulted in 35 people killed, and another 23 wounded.
Although it happened 26 years ago, telling the story decades later still makes Loughton shake.
Correspondent Seth Doane asked Loughton, “What’s it like being in a mass shooting?”
“It’s beyond frightening; it’s haunting,” she replied. “And for every bullet that’s fired, that’s a life gone. And bang! There’s another life gone. And bang! There’s another life gone. And bang! And when is it gonna be my turn?”
Loughton was shot, and did not know for hours her daughter had died. Sarah had just turned 15.
“It’s said that when you lose your parents, you lose your past,” Loughton said. “When you lose your child, you lose your future.”
The massacre rocked Australia. It came just six weeks after a new prime minister had been elected.
“I thought to myself, if I don’t use the authority of this newly-acquired office to do something, then the Australian people are entitled to think, ‘Well, this bloke’s not up to much,'” said John Howard. So, the then-prime minister, a conservative politician and close friend of George W. Bush, pushed through sweeping gun control legislation just 12 days after the shooting.
“The hardest things to do in politics often involve taking away rights and privileges from your own supporters,” Howard said.
The tough new laws banned the sale and importation of all automatic and semi-automatic rifles and shotguns; forced people to present a legitimate reason, and wait 28 days, to buy a firearm; and – perhaps most significantly – called for a massive, mandatory gun-buyback. Australia’s government confiscated and destroyed nearly 700,000 firearms, reducing the number of gun-owning households by half.
Howard told Doane, “People used to say to me, ‘You violated my human rights by taking away my gun.’ And I’d tell them, ‘I understand that. Will you please understand the argument, the greatest human right of all is to live a safe life without fear of random murder?'”
If we tally mass shootings that have killed four or more people, in the United States there have been well over 100 since the Port Arthur tragedy. But in Australia, there has been just one in the 26 years since their gun laws were passed. Plus, gun homicides have decreased by 60%.
Howard said, “It is incontestable that gun-related homicides have fallen quite significantly in Australia, incontestable.”
Senator David Leyonhjelm left Howard’s political party in protest over the strict gun laws. He insists they’ve had little effect. “It’s clutching at straws,” he said of the reasoning behind the gun laws. “John Howard just simply didn’t like guns.
“There could’ve been something done about keeping firearms out of the hands of people with a definite violent potential. But instead, all firearm owners were made to pay the price,” Leyonhjelm said. “I don’t think there’s any relationship between the availability of guns and the level of violence.”
Doane asked Howard to respond to critics who say changes in gun deaths did not happen because of the legislation.
“Well, I can say that, because all the surveys indicate it,” he replied. “The number of deaths from mass shootings, gun-related homicide has fallen, gun related suicide has fallen. Isn’t that evidence? Or are we expected to believe that that was all magically going to happen? Come on!”
Locking up guns and ammunition in separate safes is another regulation, as are surprise inspections by police. Lawyer and winemaker Greg Melick showed Doane where he keeps his weapons and ammunition. Melick had to part with some of his prized guns in the buyback.
Doane asked, “How many firearms do you still own?”
“I knew you were gonna ask me that question. I should’ve checked. I don’t know!”
The answer? About two-dozen, which he uses for sport, hunting and shooting pests on his vineyard. Melick sees gun ownership not as a right but a privilege. “I’d be very uncomfortable going back to the way it was before, when anybody could go in and buy a firearm,” he said.
“Quite frankly, I find it surprising that you, as an American, ask me a question like that. It’s just bizarre – the number of people getting killed in the United States. And you have these ridiculous arguments: ‘Well, people carry guns so they can defend themselves.'”
“But this is being said by a gun owner, you, someone who shoots for sport?”
“Yeah, I have a genuine reason to be using firearms.”
From Tasmania to Sydney to Carolyn Laughton’s living room, “Sunday Morning” kept asking if there were lessons for the U.S. in all of this.
Loughton said, “I am loath to comment. But my question is, ‘How is it going for you over there?’ But I can’t answer that for you. My heart goes out to all of you over there in America. Life is so short. And all and every one of us is somebody’s child. And when we see what’s happening, your heart bleeds.”
This story was originally broadcast on March 13, 2016.
Story produced by Sari Aviv. Editor: Mike Levine.