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On guns - look Down Under

By Greg Barns - posted Wednesday, 25 October 2006

Stephen Harper is an admirer of fellow conservative leader John Howard. Mr Harper invited the Australian Prime Minister to address Parliament last May, and some of Mr Howard's political advisers helped Mr Harper's team win office in January.

In the aftermath of the Dawson College shootings, Mr Harper could do a lot worse than call his Australian friend for advice. Ten years ago, after a gunman killed 35 people in Port Arthur, a popular Tasmanian tourist site, Mr Howard decided to stand up to his own right-wing constituency and reform gun-ownership laws.

In doing so, Mr Howard won the admiration of many who did not vote for him. He had been seen to put the national interest first, by refusing to pander to narrow political interest. The result was that Mr Howard won an early test of leadership and got a substantial boost in the polls.


The parallels between the position Mr Harper finds himself in today and that which Mr Howard experienced in April of 1996 are uncannily similar. Just as the Dawson College shootings and the gun debate have come within the first year of Mr Harper's first term in government, so it was with Mr Howard, who was elected for the first time a month before the Port Arthur shootings.

Just as Mr Harper's own support base in Western Canada is opposed to gun control, so were many in rural areas in Australia, particularly in the state of Queensland. The strongest opposition to Mr Howard's response to the Port Arthur shootings came from hard-core conservative voters in these areas who had, only a month before, helped to sweep Mr Howard into office.

The Port Arthur incident was not an isolated event. In the decade leading up to those shootings, more than 150 Australians had been killed or wounded as a result of lone gunmen going on a rampage. Mr Howard decided that enough was enough.

With Australia in mourning, he seized what he called "an opportunity to grab the moment and think about a fundamental change to gun laws." His government initiated measures to ban rapid-fire rifles and shotguns. All firearms had to be registered, and gun licences became mandatory.

The government also launched a guns-buyback program: Owners of rapid-fire rifles and shotguns who handed in their weapons were paid compensation. The program was remarkably successful - more than 700,000 guns were handed in and subsequently destroyed.

As one of Australia's leading gun-control experts, Simon Chapman, wrote recently, "in the 10 years since 1996 and the new gun laws, not one mass shooting has occurred in Australia. For this reason alone, Australia is a safer place."


But, in his pursuit of tougher gun laws, Mr Howard took a big political risk. Farmers, sporting shooters and political conservatives combined to oppose his plans. So potent was this opposition that, when Mr Howard visited a rural town in Victoria to speak to a large group of angry gun-law opponents, he wore a bulletproof vest under his suit.

Mr Howard also faced opposition from two Australian states: Queensland and Tasmania. He stared them down by threatening a referendum to take away their constitutional power to make gun laws. There was political fallout for Mr Howard's governing partner, the National Party. It lost government in Queensland in 1998, partly as a result of Mr Howard's gun laws.

But, over all, Mr Howard won widespread support for his stand. His government, which had been elected after 13 years of being in opposition (and here is another parallel with Mr Harper), had yet to convince voters that it was up to the task of running the country. By standing firm on gun control, and being seen to sacrifice his own political interests for the greater good, Mr Howard's public approval ratings soared. He was able to confirm in voters' minds that he had what it took to be prime minister.

As Mr Harper considers what actions he and his government should take to try to prevent another Dawson College tragedy, he might care to examine the policy and political success that Mr Howard has had on gun control when he faced the same dilemma 10 years ago.

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First published in the Globe and Mail, a Canadian national daily newspaper on September 27 2006.

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About the Author

Greg Barns is National President of the Australian Lawyers Alliance.

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