The Sunday Mail (Queensland)

Howard: Don’t try to dilute legislatio­n

- ELLEN WHINNETT

A QUARTER of a century after his world-leading gun control laws were introduced, former prime minister John Howard has warned state and territory leaders against any attempt to water them down.

The 1996 National Firearms Agreement has been weakened several times since it was introduced, despite it contributi­ng to a lower homicide and suicide rate, and virtually ending mass shootings. However, semiautoma­tic firearms remained banned.

“We mustn’t allow it to get frittered away; we mustn’t,’’ Mr Howard said in an interview to mark the 25year anniversar­y of the Port Arthur massacre in Tasmania which claimed the lives of 35 people.

“My view is that we achieved a historic – tragically necessary but historic – change and under no circumstan­ce should we allow it to be frittered away. “I know there’s been some changes but I’m persuaded that they’re not too serious. I just hope the common sense of the various state government­s will keep the laws as they are.’’

Mr Howard, now 81, recalled his response to the shooting massacre in 1996, less than two months after he had led the Coalition to victory over Paul Keating’s Labor government. “I knew that gun laws were a matter for the states but I also knew this was a national issue and the public wanted something done about it,” he said. “I took the view quite early that I’d just been elected with a massive majority and I was in a very strong position, notwithsta­nding the fact the Commonweal­th didn’t have the power to impose a direct ban on the sale and possession of guns, although we had control over the importatio­n.’’

Mr Howard and his deputy Tim Fischer wrangled the state and territory leaders, flagged the possibilit­y of a referendum if the states didn’t fall into line, and fronted a rally of recreation­al shooters in Victoria, where photograph­s showed he was wearing a bulletproo­f vest under his suit, a decision he says he has “regretted ever after”.

The states and territorie­s were supportive, and 12 days after the Port Arthur massacre, an agreement was signed across Australia banning civilian possession of semiautoma­tic weapons, and requiring all firearms to be registered. More than 640,000 were surrendere­d under an amnesty and buyback scheme.

The agreement is often described as Mr Howard’s greatest legacy and came at considerab­le political cost, as many rural people who used guns were Coalition voters who felt betrayed by their party. Mr Howard accepts the anger from voters but remains firm it was the right decision to make.

“I am very proud of what was done. It was the right thing, it crossed the party political divide. It made Australia a safer country in which to live and surely the first obligation of a government is the safety of the country’s citizens.”

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