John Howard has spoken out about one of his biggest regrets as prime minister, and it’s not a failed policy or election defeat that keeps him up at night, but rather a decision to take extreme safety precautions during a speech in Gippsland in 1996.
Speaking with Nine political reporter Jonathan Kearsley, Howard recalled an event in the Victorian region just weeks after the Port Arthur massacre claimed the lives of 35 people and injured 23 others.
Howard introduced sweeping changes to Australia’s gun laws following the deadly shooting, banning the sale and importation of automatic and semi-automatic guns and introducing strict rules around background checks and gun ownership.
While the changes were welcomed in many parts of the country, there was some unrest from farmers who felt they were being treated like would-be criminals under the government’s new regulations.
Prior to taking to the stage in Gippsland to speak with the farmers, Howard’s security team warned him there was a credible threat against him and that Australian Federal Police had reason to believe an assassination attempt could be on the cards.
He was advised to wear a bullet-proof vest; something he resisted at first, but ultimately agreed to do.
“I should never have worn it,” Howard told Kearsey. “That was security advice I was given. I never really felt unsafe in Australia.”
He added: “I knew there were a lot of people in Australia who disagreed very strongly with what I did. That’s the stuff of politics. But Australians are not violent people.”
Howard said he immediately regretted it. His coat jacket wasn’t thick enough to conceal the vest and a photograph taken from behind showed the clear outline of the thick metal plates on his back.
It was published on the front pages of newspapers around the country and was branded a “confronting milestone” in Australian history.
While he regrets donning the vest, Howard’s drastic changes to gun laws have proved effective. The new laws declared that self-defence wasn’t a legitimate enough reason to hold a firearm licence and saw more than a million firearms surrendered to officials between 1996 and 2015.
Australia has suffered no further massacres since and gun crime is low across the country – especially when compared to America, where debate about gun control continues to rage and there have already been 155 mass shooting in 2018.
A study published earlier this year in the Annals of Internal Medicine, found that Australia’s laws had indeed saved lives.
An analysis of firearm deaths between 1979 and 2013 showed that 13 mass shootings took place in Australia the 18 years preceding and including the Port Arthur massacre; none has occurred in the 22 years since.