It was December 15, 2014. Christmas cheer was in the air and the SSAA team was winding down for a short but well-deserved holiday break after another challenging year. That was until a terrorist, wielding an illegally modified and unregistered black market shotgun, held up a cafe in Sydney’s Martin Place, resulting in three deaths, including the lone wolf perpetrator.
Within the first few hours of the 16-hour siege, the SSAA’s media phones rang off the hook, with journalists desperate for our views on the unfolding incident. That’s right: media professionals from the likes of the ABC, major Fairfax and News Corp papers and seasoned radio veterans were calling us, the Sporting Shooters’ Association of Australia, about a terrorist incident unfolding in central Sydney.
False news reports that the perpetrator, Man Haron Monis, had a firearms licence raised some legitimate questions initially, but it was quickly revealed that Monis had in fact held a since-expired security licence in 1997 and 1998, which only enabled him to carry a company-issued handgun while on duty. However, this clarification did not stop the Australian Greens Party from using the unfolding tragedy to push for tighter restrictions on licensed firearm owners, nor did it stop the media calls as an appetite for the views of the biggest group representing sporting shooters, recreational hunters and law-abiding firearm owners, regarding what was clearly a terrorist incident, continued to grow.
All this unwanted media attention on us, the legitimate firearms community, came down to one common factor: a firearm. At the time, the media strategy was clear: we would not engage or comment on the unfolding incident and, even once the siege came to a blazing end, the media team was very wary of connecting the SSAA and the activities of our members with an act of terror. We sometimes are criticised for not participating in some sensitive and heavily biased mainstream media interviews, but the reason for this is out of a genuine need to protect our members from being further demonised by the nation’s predominately anti-gun media.
It can become frustrating when tuning into the news to hear the vocal anti-gun minority peddling their lies and slandering our chosen sport and pastime. The Port Arthur murders anniversary always seems to be revisited by the heartless media who are chasing the ratings, despite the decision at the time of the tragedy to actively stop the deranged murderer from gaining any notoriety or inspiring copycat events. His name is not mentioned in Tasmania and the court records have been sealed for 30 years for these very reasons.
But when the media seems to only contact the SSAA when something bad involving a firearm happens - and positive stories about our safe, fun and all-inclusive sport are deliberately ignored because, as one journalist told us, they aren’t ‘sensationalist’ enough - it is a case of picking our battles wisely. The Sydney Siege was no exception.
Now, as the inquest into the deaths arising from the Lindt Café siege continues and evidence from those two fateful days is painfully revisited by the surviving hostages and victims’ families, it has become apparent that the blame cast onto the nation’s one million innocent licensed firearm owners might fall closer to the very authorities who are there to protect us. Reports have shown that the New South Wales Police Tactical Operations Unit (TOU), which was in charge of handling the siege, resisted calls to relinquish control over the worsening situation to the Australian Army’s Tactical Assault Group East (TAG), based at Holsworthy Barracks in Sydney, which is better equipped to deal with such situations. Even when the specialist army response group, a mere 45-minute drive away, set up a replica of the cafe and practised storming the building in preparation for the call for help, the police still did not relinquish control.
During the inquest, the police officer in charge during the first few hours of the siege, Assistant Commissioner Michael Fuller, testified that he referred the case to his superiors early on because it was clear the incident was terrorist-related. In an attempt to protect the image and decision-making process throughout the hearings, the NSW Police demanded that its evidence be given under the condition of secrecy - a move which was heard on a case-by-case basis, with the surviving hostages rightly wanting to know how the authorities acted during the two-day incident. Still, police testimonies that remain subject to non-publication orders hide some crucial evidence, specifically surrounding how the police went about investigating if Monis did have a bomb as he claimed, as well as the negotiation methods.
Clive Williams, a visiting professor at the Australian National University who has an extensive career in defence and national security intelligence, said it was “soon very clear that Monis had a political agenda” and that the incident was “politically-motivated”, defining it as “a terrorist situation”. “The NSW TOU would have been aware that the incident was politically-motivated early on but the negotiation process was complicated by the mental state of the gunman. It is the responsibility of the police commander to decide on whether to hand over to the TAG, and when such a handover should take place,” he explained.
Criticism surrounding the handling of the incident by the TOU has focused on why control was not handed over to the army early on - or at all - particularly considering police marksmen are trained to only shoot a perpetrator in an attempt to resolve the situation if there is an immediate threat to the lives of others. As Commissioner Fuller testified, the TOU adopted a “contain and negotiate” policy and would not act unless there was an “immediate and apparent” threat of serious injury or death.
Professor Williams holds the view that the police “presumably believed that they could convince Monis to surrender once he had achieved the publicity and notoriety he was seeking”. “As soon as a hostage taker uses violence against hostages it is desirable to resolve the incident by force. Having TAG East on stand-by near the cafe in case the incident had to be resolved by force would have been a sensible decision,” he noted. “This is the first time an Australian TOU has been involved in resolving a politically-motivated siege hostage situation. Violent resolution, if needed, is better carried out by a TAG because it requires a high level of controlled marksmanship - something the TAGs train for on a regular basis.”
A concern at the time of the siege regarding whether or not Monis was strapped with explosives has been presented as key evidence defending the decision to not allow police to storm the building early on. However, a police sniper testified that he asked for permission to take down Monis hours before the deaths of two hostages as he had a clear shot. Instead, the nation waited with bated breath as the TOU sat it out, only initiating its emergency action plan after cafe manager Tori Johnson, 34, was executed by Monis at point-blank range. Barrister Katrina Dawson, 38, was then fatally killed from fragments of police bullets when the TOU stormed the cafe with M4A1 carbines immediately following Mr Johnson’s murder.
The inquest has been held across four stages. The final stage is examining the siege itself and the response to the incident by law enforcement, which was winding up at time of writing. While some media reports simply refer to Monis as a ‘gunman’, he was time and time again referred to as a ‘terrorist’ by key witnesses throughout the inquiry, including forensic psychologist and radicalisation expert Kate Barrelle, who declared he was “undoubtedly a terrorist”.
The findings of the inquiry will be published at a later date. In the meantime, the SSAA will continue to promote the positives of recreational shooting and hunting and not be drawn into unrelated or terrorist incidents that happen to involve the tool of our chosen pastime.