By James Grubel
CANBERRA (Reuters) - Former Australian Prime Minister John Howard wore a bullet proof vest under his suit when he addressed an angry crowd of gun owners in 1996, telling them he was going to ban automatic and semi-automatic weapons for the safety of all Australians.
At other rallies, effigies of his deputy prime minister Tim Fischer were hanged by opponents of gun control.
The battle for gun control in Australia, after the country's worst massacre in which 35 people were shot dead, was risky both personally and politically. Howard alienated a large part of his conservative, rural base and was almost thrown from office.
But the gun reforms made Australia a safer place, with fewer homicides and suicides, and both Howard and Fischer are now urging U.S. President Barack Obama to take his gun control campaign to the people, just as they did, to gain a consensus.
"I knew that I had to use the authority of my office to curb the possession and use of the type of weapons that killed 35 innocent people. I also knew it wouldn't be easy," Howard wrote in the New York Times earlier this year.
"Penalizing decent, law-abiding citizens because of the criminal behavior of others seemed unfair...I understood their misgivings. Yet I felt there was no alternative," wrote Howard, adding he hoped his example would contribute constructively to the U.S. gun debate.
Obama wants to ban military assault rifles and high capacity ammunition clips after a gunman killed 20 children and six adults at a school in Newtown, Connecticut, in December. But his plans appear to be losing momentum ahead of debate in the U.S. Senate this month.
BRUTAL GUN POLITICS
Six weeks after Howard won office in 1996, Martin Bryant, a psychologically disturbed man, used semi-automatic rifles to kill 35 people in Port Arthur, Tasmania.
Fischer, a Vietnam war veteran, farmer and gun owner, said the politics of gun control in Australia were brutal.
"It was a battle royal, and John Howard laid down a template that was worth defending and taking to the public square, taking to the people, and shifting the tectonic plates in the process. And the result ... 200 less coffins a year on a conservative estimate," Fischer told Reuters.
"It was the right thing to do, but people had to be persuaded of it. And this is why our friends in the United States ... should now consider seriously taking it in a big way to the public square."
In Australia, gun owners were compensated when they handed in previously legal weapons. Almost 700,000 guns were destroyed, halving the number of homes with a gun. That would be equal to taking 40 million guns out of action in the United States.
But the reforms angered many constituents of Fischer's rural-based National Party, who vented their anger two years later at the ballot box. The pro-gun One Nation party won almost one million votes and the government narrowly avoided defeat.
Australia had 13 gun massacres in the 18 years before the 1996 gun reforms, but has not suffered any mass shootings since.
Studies found a marked drop in gun-related homicides, down 59 percent, and a dramatic 65 percent drop in the rate of gun-related suicides, in the 10 years after the weapons crackdown.
But some Australian gun owners, like hunter Stephen O'Donnell, still oppose Howard's gun control laws, arguing they have simply created paperwork not made Australia safer.
O'Donnell, a license kangaroo shooter, can only use a single shell, bolt-action rifle, limiting his ability to control mobs of kangaroos and feral pests which can wreak havoc on farms.
"If I could have a semi-automatic, that would be a much more efficient way of doing it. You could take multiple targets a lot quicker," he said.
(Editing by Robert Birsel and Michael Perry)