A Killer in Profile
From an early age, Martin Bryant was an unusual child. His mother, Carleen, often told family and friends that she was concerned about young Martin's temperament. His father Maurice would eventually take early retirement from his job as a dockworker to look after Martin. By the time he started school, his erratic behavior distanced him from the other children. It wasn't until he reached primary school that he was found to have a below average I.Q. and put into special classes. One of his teachers at New Town High remembers him as "totally isolated in his own little world." In fact, he was more isolated than several deaf children who were in the same class. What was more intriguing was that Martin seemed to prefer it that way and was at his happiest when he didn't have to interact with anybody.
As he got older his "strange detachment," became more apparent, even when confronted with traumatic and sometimes dangerous situations. On one occasion, when he and a girlfriend were marooned in a dinghy in heavy seas off Bass Strait, Martin showed "a complete lack of emotion" when the couple were rescued by a fisherman. He showed a similar detachment when his father supposedly committed suicide by drowning himself in a dam on the family's property. When he was asked to help find his father's body, Martin seemed to be enjoying himself immensely and showed no sign of concern over his father's death. According to an ambulance officer at the scene, Martin knew more about the death of his father than he was telling. Although Maurice Bryant was found in the bottom of a dam with a weighted diver's belt wrapped tightly around his throat, police treated the matter as a suicide when they found a suicide note and an amount of cash in a car on the property.
Because of his strange behavior, Martin was often bullied and on one occasion was almost drowned by a group of children he was tormenting. As he grew, Martin's behavior became more cruel and bizarre. In one incident, while skin diving with a friend, Martin jabbed a hand spear into the head of his companion while he was surfacing. Neighbors describe how, as a child, Martin would constantly torment them by throwing rocks at their children, cutting down trees, untying boats from their moorings and destroying fruit trees and vegetable gardens.
After leaving school, Martin did not need to look for work as he qualified for a pension because his I.Q. was twenty to thirty points below average. Sometime later however, he took a job that would change his life forever. Helen Harvey, the rich, middle-aged eccentric heiress to the Tattersalls Lottery fortune, asked Martin to work for her as a handyman. From that time on, Martin formed a bond with Harvey that was seen by many as more than a working relationship. Harvey lavished attention on Martin and often took him on shopping expeditions, sometimes spending thousands of dollars on him at a time. She was known in the area for weaving strange tales about her life and for squandering large amounts of money needlessly. During one particular year, she purchased a new car every month but never drove any of them. Jewelry was also a passion but she never wore any. Eventually, Martin moved in to her mansion which was around the corner from his parent's home. The house was a menagerie with scores of dogs, cats and birds living in and around the house. On one occasion, the living conditions in the home had become so squalid that the RSPCA animal welfare association forced Harvey to clean up the property to comply with health regulations. After the job was completed, seven dumpsters full of rubbish were taken from inside the house alone. Later, when the bins were emptied, apart from rubbish, they were found to contain several television sets in working order, cash and other valuables. Eventually, Bryant and Harvey moved to the country.
After moving to the small rural town of Copping, Martin's behavior became increasingly erratic. When he was kicked off a bus for harassing a young schoolgirl, he hailed a cab and chased the bus to abuse the driver. Not long after moving to the new area, his neighbors began to complain about Martin prowling around their properties late at night. He was later reported for threatening a neighbor with a rifle and became increasingly obsessed with firearms. One family friend remembers him constantly "showing off" with his guns and bragging about taking "pot shots" at the tourists who stopped at the apple stand near the property's front gate.
Regardless of the numerous complaints about his behavior, Martin spent some of the happiest years of his life in Harvey's company. This was all to come to a tragic end when Harvey was killed in a traffic accident, which some believed was caused by Martin tugging at the steering wheel while Harvey was driving, a dangerous prank that Bryant was known for. The police later investigated the matter but cleared him of any involvement. With the two most influential figures in his life dead, Martin was left largely on his own. Named as the sole beneficiary of Harvey's estate, Martin now had a mansion in Hobart and cash in excess of $500,000 to spend any way he wanted.
Following Harvey's funeral, Martin moved back to the house in Hobart but became restless. With a virtually endless stream of income, he was free to choose any lifestyle he wanted. He soon discovered overseas travel and made thirty trips within a three-year period. During this time he made few friends, his only social contacts were whoever sat beside him on the aircraft and shop owners and café proprietors, many of whom remember him for the many outrageous outfits he wore. His relationships with women were just as bizarre with Bryant making approaches to any female regardless of age, often making lewd comments about their appearance and his sexual preferences, which seemed to include bestiality. Unable to build a normal relationship, Bryant indulged his physical needs by hiring prostitutes to come to his house. Several who visited him at the mansion refused to go back as they found him and his surroundings "creepy."
In the months before the massacre, Martin visited Port Arthur several times. During this time, he bought a new sports bag. The shopkeeper who sold it to him, remembers him measuring several before deciding on which one to purchase. Although many psychologists believe that Martin Bryant's actions on that fateful day stemmed from impulsive behavior, the sports bag incident and the fact that he had visited the site numerous times in the weeks preceding the attack, suggests that the killings were planned in advance and carried out with cold, calculating precision.
While Martin Bryant recovered in Royal Hobart hospital under heavy guard, the families and friends of the victims attempted to come to terms with the tragedy. After the police completed their reconstruction of the massacre, they estimated that, from the time Bryant had started shooting until the time he left the historic site, only eight minutes had elapsed. In just eight short minutes, Martin Bryant had taken the lives of 11 Tasmanians, 12 Victorians, 1 South Australian, 4 from New South Wales, 4 from Great Britain, 2 Malaysians and another man from South-East Asia. Of the injured, 15 were Australians, two others a Canadian and an American.
When police later released the information that Bryant had purchased the "military style" weapons used in the attack, from a Hobart gun dealer without any form of licensing, it resulted in an uproar. Virtually overnight, large numbers of private citizens called newspapers, television stations and talk-back radio shows demanding that Australia's disparate gun laws be urgently reappraised. Within days, many politicians added their support and met to discuss a new set of national gun laws including a total ban on all semi-automatic weapons.
In response, representatives of several prominent pro-gun lobby groups protested against the sweeping changes, citing that the laws would only serve to place restrictions on decent, law-abiding citizens and not the "lunatic fringe" that procured their firearms illegally.
Although much of the blame for Port Arthur was centered on the availability of guns used in violent crimes, Australia's homicide statistics prove otherwise. Tasmania, Martin Bryant's home state, has the lowest murder rate in the country with just 0.85 murders per 100,000 population, a rate far lower than Japan which has some of the strictest gun laws in the world. According to the Australian Institute of Criminology, fists, knives and blunt instruments are the most frequently used weapons in homicides, with guns accounting for just 25%.
Despite numerous protests, Prime Minister John Howard later implemented sweeping reforms regarding gun ownership in Australia which included bans on the importation and sale of most "military style" semi-automatic weapons.