Port Arthur memorial garden, by Michael Rawle / Flickr.com

This article was published on the Sojourners blog 15/12/2015 .

“Death has taken its toll. / Some pain knows no release / but the knowledge / of brave compassion / shines like a pool of peace.”


These words are engraved on the memorial pond at the Port Arthur mass shooting site in Australia. Nearby, a wooden cross is inscribed with the names of the 35 men, women, and children who died here. In contrast, a brochure at hand provides a simple explanation of what occurred in this place; it notably does not name the gunman. 1996: Australia’s last mass gun death.


After any traumatic event we ask ourselves, “What saves the next person from what has happened to me? How can I make sure no one sees what I have seen? Goes through what I have gone through?”… as bereaved, survivor, emergency responder, community member, minister.


Glenn Cumbers became an ordained minister of the local Church of Christ a mere six weeks before the Port Arthur massacre. The morning service was over and he was enjoying lunch at a home nearby when the sounds of shooting were heard. He and his companions were among the first responders. In the days that followed, the church was open 24 hours for anybody to come for prayer or to feel a bit of peace and quiet. There was ministering to the community and leading memorial services, private and public, as well as advocacy urging gun owners to act in the national interest: “We ask that the minority be willing to forgo their short-term wants for the long-term good of Australia.”


It is not insignificant to have all the Federal, States and Territories Parliaments of Australia pass one universal law. There was lobbying by many parties after the 1987 Queen Street massacre and the 1991 Strathfield massacre.


As Australians, we are not so many generations removed from penal colony settlement or “subduing the natives” (those were massacres, too, it warrants mentioning) that saw an “every man for himself” attitude become culturally embedded. But the 1996 massacre in Port Arthur saw a tipping point where the law was far behind popular opinion.

When changes to gun laws were first proposed, the member churches of the National Council of Churches welcomed the initiative and urged government to agree on and pass the legislation. 

right:  Minutes of The National Council of Churches in Australia (NCCA), Friday 12 July 1996


The New South Wales Farmers Association, with its high rate of gun owners, also gave its support for a total ban on semiautomatics firearms. And proving that you can have our guns but not our sense of humour, NSW Farmers pointed out that with reforming gun laws Australians will still be able to bear arms, such as: bolt-action, centre-fire military rifles; lever-action, centre-fire sporting rifles; pump-action, centre-fire sporting rifles; rim-fire rifles with bolt, lever or pump actions, and double-barrelled shotguns. Further, a farmer commented, “If a shooter cannot knock down a fox with one of the weapons I have mentioned, the solution is not a semiautomatic firearm but an ophthalmologist with a centre-fire laser or, alternatively, a return to basic training.”


No one was taking our guns — we were giving them up. The gun control question should not be prefaced by what you have to lose, but by what you have to gain.


Glenn Cumbers left the church in 2004. He could no longer work as a result of post-traumatic stress disorder that had not been supported. Pouring himself out to the community and addressing their healing was his job, but who was healing the healer? In 2008, Stephen Robinson published a practical guidebook called Ministry in Disaster Settings: Lessons from the Edge that investigates the experiences of ministers, like Cumbers, who have been on the ground for some of the worst disasters of Australian history. Cumbers says, “I found that book was really the first step on the long journey of healing for me.”


We always ask: What saves the next person from what happened to me? What does brave compassion look like where you are? I don’t know. But I do know that if I had a gun, I would say to any family touched by gun violence: “I cannot do much, but if the world is a better place with just one less gun, have mine.”


In the words of former Australia Premier Barrie Unsworth, who lost re-election in 1991 advocating for stronger gun law, “It is not too late to do something positive.”


by Talitha Fraser