Walter Mikac warns Australia not to be complacent as gun control laws are relaxed

Walter Mikac at the beach in Byron Bay in 2014. Photo: Paul HarrisFollowing the Port Arthur massacre, Walter Mikac wanted to be left alone.

Instead he found himself inadvertently drawn into Australia’s gun control debate.

The massacre, which happened 20 years ago on April 28 and 29, began an unstoppable movement for gun law reform.

Since losing his wife and two daughters in the mass shooting, Mikac has become one of the debate’s most potent voices.

After the killings Mikac wrote to Prime Minister John Howard, who phoned in response and involved him in the push for reform.

Momentum for change built as the nation grappled with the tragedy.

Mikac asked the same question as the rest of the country: How could this happen?

“You think, ‘Why wasn’t this identified and something done about it?'” he told Fairfax Media ahead of the anniversary.

The massacre was a loss of innocence for Australia when it came to guns and violence, he said.

Its impact on Tasmania was also profound.

“If Australia was shocked at what happened, Tasmania was overwhelmed in many cases,” Mikac said.

Walter Mikac at the launch of his book To Have and to Hold. Photo: Jason South

“There was almost a sense of guilt that they had such poor firearms legislation that that was able to happen.”

The Melbourne-raised pharmacist had moved to Nubeena, a village near Port Arthur, to open a pharmacy with his wife, Nanette.

They followed her parents, who came to Tasmania in 1994.

Their new home felt safe enough. The family didn’t lock their house or cars.

“The life we had while we were living there was fantastic.

“You really have a sense of security, and quietness is the greatest gift you’ve got there.

“That was gone after Port Arthur.”

Gunman Martin Bryant killed 35 people and wounded 23 others in 1996. Mikac’s wife and daughters, six-year-old Alannah and three-year-old Madeline, were three of the victims.

Bryant shot Nanette, and fired twice at Madeline.

He followed Alannah behind a tree, and shot her at point-blank range.

Mikac still refuses to name Bryant. He believes the gunman, serving 35 life sentences at Risdon Prison, doesn’t deserve notoriety.

Every day brings reminders of Nanette, Alannah and Madeline, Mikac said.

He thinks of what his daughters would have been doing today.

“Upon reflection there are always thoughts about what they would have been able to achieve and the loss of potential given their lives were shortened,” he said.

Walter Mikac front of the tree where his daughter was killed at the one-year memorial service of the Port Arthur massacre. Photo: Jason South

He hasn’t returned to Port Arthur in 15 years.

Although he won’t attend the commemorations for the massacre this month, he supports them.

“It’s a great sign of respect.”

Living today in Byron Bay with his wife Kim, Mikac runs a pharmacy and is monitoring the impact of The Alannah and Madeline Foundation, established to protect children from violence.

Along with support from his friends and family, the foundation’s work has helped him in his grief.

Its programs have reached 1.5 million children since it started in 1997.

The Foundation last week launched a petition to maintain gun legislation enacted after the massacre.The petition also calls for governments to restrict dangerous guns including the Adler lever-action shotgun.

“A significant legacy and one of the only good things to come of the 1996 Port Arthur tragedy, the day I lost my wife and children, was the establishment of the National Firearms Agreement 1996,” Mikac said.

State and federal governments are considering extending a temporary ban on the gun’s seven-round version as part of a National Firearms Agreement review.

Walter Mikac is comforted by family and friends at the memorial service in May 1996 for the victims of the shooting in Tasmania. Photo: Rick Stevens

Thousands of its five-shot version, made available after the ban, have been imported into NSW, Victoria and Queensland.

The Adler shotgun has the same speed and firepower as banned pump-action varieties, and was designed to “get around” Australia’s firearms legislation, Mikac said.

“No one needs that in our general community. We’re not war-torn, we have minimal terrorist threat.”

Mikac wants Australia to protect the gun laws he advocated following the massacre.

Despite resistance from states, farmers and sport shooters, Labor’s support for the gun law reforms in 1996 made them inevitable, Mikac said.

“It was just a question of how long it was going to take to do it.”

Certain semiautomatic and self-loading rifles, and shotguns, were banned.

Firearm licence applicants had to show genuine reason for having a gun, and the federal government initiated a massive gun buyback scheme that removed 700,000 firearms from circulation.

Twenty years later the success of Mr Howard’s gun reforms can be measured in the number of lives they’ve saved, Mikac said.

“In that time we haven’t had any mass murders.”

He believes Howard’s government will be most remembered for its firearms reforms.

“I’ve got sheer admiration and take my hat off. He was quite courageous for that change to happen.”

It was “quite feasible” that Australia could have failed to enact reform following the massacre, as the United States has after killings at Sandy Hook and Charleston, he said.

Walter Mikac greets former PM John Howard at a lunch for gun control in September 2015. Photo: Nick Moir

“It took a lot of effort on the government’s part to make that happen,” Mikac said.

“At least we’re not in the same situation as the United States.”

Australia’s reforms have become an international model for gun control and have been held as an example in the fierce firearms law debate in the US.

President Barack Obama has cited Australia in his battle for gun reform, but failed to overcome vocal and entrenched opposition backed by the powerful National Rifle Association.

“You can see from an emotional point of view, he dearly wants to make a change,” Mikac said.

The US situation is a reminder of the odds Australia’s reforms could have faced.

But Mikac wants Australia to avoid complacency.

“The call to action’s usually when something happens, rather than when something doesn’t happen.”

Parts of Australia’s gun control laws are being “carved off” and measures to relax them added, threatening the legislation’s integrity, he fears.

“If you allow a little bit [of change], it allows further dilution.”

He laments legislation in Western Australia letting children use guns.

“I find that pretty revolting to think … that younger children can walk onto a firing range,” Mikac said.

He warned against allowing children to see guns as something fun.

“I just think it’s crazy.”

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.