An Australian community is reeling from the deadliest mass shooting the country has seen in more than 20 years, after seven people, including four children, were discovered dead on a rural property near Margaret River.
Authorities in Western Australia responded early Friday morning to a home in Osmington, not far from Perth, where the four children and three adults were found dead from gunshot wounds, according to local news reports.
The shooting has rattled Australia, where lawmakers passed some of the world's most restrictive gun-control laws after a 1996 massacre in Tasmania.
“ 'Shocking' is about the only word,” resident Felicity Haynes told 9 News Australia. “I just feel sick to the stomach. That couldn't happen here.”
Western Australia police commissioner Chris Dawson said at a news conference that officers responded to the scene about 5:15 a.m. and discovered the seven bodies. Two adults were outside, and five other victims were inside the home in Osmington, a small town nestled in Western Australia's southwest corner.
Police said two firearms were also found at the scene.
Although police said that they are not searching for a suspect, they would not confirm reports that the incident was likely a murder-suicide. Dawson said he could describe it only as a “horrific incident.”
“This devastating tragedy will no doubt have a lasting impact on the families concerned, the whole community and, in particular, the local communities in our Southwest,” he told reporters.
Authorities have not publicly identified the deceased, but a family friend told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. that the seven victims were Peter and Cynda Miles, their daughter, Katrina, and Katrina's four children.
“It's just horrifying, just horrifying,” Haynes, a family friend, told 9 News Australia, explaining that she heard three gunshots — and then two more — at about 4 a.m. but did not think much about it.
“They were good people. It's not fair. It's not fair,” she said.
The family was well known locally, Margaret River shire president Pamela Townshend told news.com.au. “This incident has shocked our community to the core," she said.
The deadly incident was Australia's worst mass shooting since the Port Arthur massacre in 1996, when a gunman opened fire in a cafe in Tasmania and then hunted down more victims in his vehicle, killing 35 and injuring many others.
As The Washington Post reported, soon after the 1996 incident, John Howard, who was elected as Australia's prime minister that year, enacted strict gun control. Known as the 1996 National Firearms Agreement (NFA), the law banned the possession, manufacture and sale of all semiautomatic firearms and pump-action shotguns other than in “exceptional circumstances,” such as military and police use.
The NFA also mandated that applicants wait 28 days from the time they obtain a permit to the time they buy a weapon. Applicants are also required to undergo firearms training, and weapons and ammunition must be stored separately, according to the law.
The Washington Post's Kevin Sullivan reported that the 1996 massacre had united Australians on the gun debate.
In a land of only 18 million people, nearly everyone knew someone, or knew someone who knew someone, who was among the 500 or so people in the small waterfront historic site at Port Arthur that day. Australians took the murders personally: Polls showed 95 percent favored the new laws. Australians also were willing to reach into their own wallets to get rid of guns.
There was, of course, opposition to the new gun restrictions: Gun owners argued that the laws would not reduce gun crime and would unfairly penalize law-abiding sport-shooters. They said criminals would be emboldened because more of their victims would be unarmed. And they staged large rallies. Gun owners here always have been a powerful lobby, but they were surprisingly ineffective this time, despite support from the U.S. National Rifle Association.
In 2016, 20 years after the shooting in Tasmania, The Post's Christopher Ingraham cited research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association showing that Australia had not had a mass shooting since the changes, and that suicide rates in the country had been on the decline.
He noted, however, that there were no significant changes in gun-related homicides in the country.
But a 2016 investigation by an Australian newspaper, the Age, found that gun-related crimes in Melbourne had doubled over the previous five years.
In an editorial last year, the Age said it respected citizens' rights but that there are “some freedoms that have no place in a civilised society, and none more so than the carrying of illegal firearms.” The newspaper was applauding Australia's National Firearms Amnesty, which gives people the opportunity to register or sell their firearms — “no questions asked.”
The newspaper also called for firearm prohibition orders that would “allow police to subject prohibited persons to warrantless searches and ban them from being in proximity to a gun.”
After Friday's massacre, the premier of Western Australia, Mark McGowan, called the shooting “appalling, awful and terrible,” according to news.com.au.
“This is a very distressing day for Western Australia,” he said. “My thoughts are with the family and friends of the victims, and also with the first responders and investigators as they piece together this tragic set of circumstances.”
Haynes, the family friend, told the ABC that the victims had moved into the home about three years ago. Neighbors reported that the children were home-schooled there.
Haynes told 9 News that over the years, Cynda Miles had become a beloved member of the small community.
“You can imagine this warm, motherly person who's always smiling,” she said, “always generous and brings fresh baked scones to everything. That’s Cynda.”