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Twenty years ago a gunman with an assault rifle killed 35 people at a tourist resort in Tasmania, in the biggest mass murder in Australian history. What happened next is instructive as America wrestles with the aftermath of the recent spate of shootings in the United States.

Port Arthur is a small coastal tourist town. It boasts an old penal colony that has been turned into a tourist attraction. Late April is the end of autumn in the Southern Hemisphere, and there were still many tourists at the Broad Arrow Café.

Among the lunchtime patrons on that balmy Sunday, April 28, 1996, was Martin Bryant. He calmly finished his meal on the balcony, and then he walked into the main dining room, laid a satchel on an empty table, pulled out an AR-15 assault rifle and started shooting.

The first victim was Moh Yee Ng, shot through the head literally as he was raising his soup spoon to his mouth. His girlfriend was next, followed by a dozen or more in the café. Bryant killed some 20 people there in less than two minutes.

He then left the café and moved through the seaside resort, seeking more victims. Several tourists emerging from a tour bus were shot. (It is said that some tourists actually moved toward the sounds, thinking that the gunshots were part of some kind of re-enactment.)

He climbed in his car and drove about 300 yards. Along the road he spotted a woman and her two children and shot them, actually chasing one of the girls down as she tried vainly to hide behind a tree.

Then he held up in a cottage with one hostage (whom he killed) until finally surrendering to the police 19 hours after the shooting began. In all, he killed 35 and wounded 18.

Bryant surprisingly survived to tell his tale – or sort of, as he never actually confessed, and there are conspiracy theorists who still maintain that he was a patsy for other shooters; a latter-day Lee Harvey Oswald.

He was later diagnosed as schizophrenic and was (inevitably) described as a "quiet lad and a bit of a loner." Nevertheless, he was judged legally sane, convicted on 35 counts of murder and sentenced to 35 life sentences in prison without the possibility of parole, the harshest possible sentence in Australia.