Letters reflecting on gun reform in Canberra

Former Prime Minister John Howard addressing a rally at Sale Oval on June 16, 1996.`Photo: National Museum of Australia

Tom Parry

LETTERS written to John Howard in the aftermath of the Port Arthur massacre are the latest items to be included in the National Museum of Australia.

The museum announced last Thursday, June 15 that it had acquired correspondence between Mr Howard and Walter Mikac, discussing potential changes to Australia’s firearm laws.

In total, five of the letters sent by both men have been placed on display in the museum, which is located in Canberra.

Mr Mikac wrote in the first of his letters, dated May 7, 1996: “As the person who lost his wife & 2 beautiful daughters at Port Arthur I am writing to you (Mr Howard) to give you the strength to ensure no person in Australia ever has to suffer such a loss.”

“Powerless and in deep grief, I was compelled to take action. Writing to Prime Minister John Howard was the logical choice,” Mr Mikac said of the letters.

“If our gun safety was going to change it had to come from the top.”

The Port Arthur massacre occurred on April 28, 1996 and saw 35 people killed in one of the worst mass shootings in Australia’s history.

Mr Mikac’s wife Nanette and his two daughters, Alannah and Madeline were three of the victims.

Mr Howard was just one month into his 11-year term as Prime Minister when the horrific event took place.

Under his leadership and with bipartisan support, the government enacted historic, strict reforms that placed a ban on semi-automatic rifles and pump-action shotguns, and introduced a compulsory gun buy-back scheme that acquired more than 640,000 firearms at a cost of $500 million.

When inflation is considered, that figure would be over $954 million today.

The reforms and the buy-back scheme were not without controversy, and generated protests among gun owners and lobby groups.

Sale became unwittingly involved in the national debate when Mr Howard attended a gun rally on June 16, 1996 at Sale Oval, where he addressed attendees from the Cliff Gamlin Stand with a bullet-proof vest clearly visible under his suit.

Speaking to David Wenham on TV program The ABC Of… last year, Mr Howard revealed he didn’t want to wear the vest, but was persuaded to do so.

“I didn’t feel unsafe, but my close advisor and friend, Graheme Morris said ‘Look John, how will I explain to Janette if some lunatic shoots you?'” Mr Howard said – Janette being his wife of 50 years.

“And so I was persuaded on the strength of that to wear it, and I felt afterwards I shouldn’t have done so because, although there were a lot of angry people there, I didn’t feel unsafe.”

The Port Arthur massacre and the subsequent response of the Coalition government is today regarded as a defining moment of Mr Howard’s Prime Ministership.

In a letter dated July 2, 1996, Mr Howard writes: “In the twenty-two years I have been in politics I have not experienced any other event which has so shocked the community and galvanised the political leadership of this country.”

“It has brought together the major political parties at all levels of government with a determination to achieve historic and permanent change in the way our society approaches the possession and use of dangerous firearms.”

Mr Mikac would later form the Alannah and Madeline Foundation, a non-profit organisation dedicated to keeping children free from violence and trauma.