SYDNEY, June 17 -- Conservative Prime Minister John Howard apparently became the first Australian leader to don body armor in public when he addressed a hostile pro-gun rally Sunday, a published report said Monday. Witnesses said the outline of a bullet-proof vest was clearly visible bulging beneath Howard's suit coat as he spoke in defense of proposed anti-gun measures at Sale, in the state of Victoria. Howard and his staff refused to comment, saying it was against policy to either confirm or deny security matters. But the Sydney Telegraph newspaper published a front-page picture of Howard that showed the vest. Howard moved to toughen the nation's gun laws after the shooting deaths two months ago of 35 people in the island state of Tasmania. Martin Bryant, 28, is in custody in connection with the Tasmanian slaughter. About 3,000 attended the Sale rally, organized by the Sporting Shooters Association and the Field Game Shooters Association. Witnesses said Howard was peppered by jeers, taunts, verbal abuse and even at one point Nazi salutes and cries of 'Seig Heil,' the World War II German Nazi greeting. Protesters carried banners proclaiming: 'Gun Culture Safer Than Canberra Poofter Culture,' 'Only Woosies Hand in Guns,' 'Johnny Hitler, We're Not Giving You OurGuns.' But Howard confronted them head-on, challenging them to take the issue to the ballot box. 'If I am wrong and you are right, then the democratic processes of the Australian community will vindicate you and condemn me,' he declared.
Howard, elected in March, said a dramatic reduction in the number of automatic and semiautomatic weapons was necessary to ensure a safer Australia. Gun owners and users are angry anti-gun measures agreed to at a historic meeting of government officials following the Port Arthur massacre. Howard and other government leaders want to ban all automatic and semi-automatic weapons and establish a national gun register. Under the plan, all banned weapons will be bought back by the government at market value as at March this year in a $395 million ($500 million Australian) scheme to be funded by a 0.2 percent tax levy. The Telegraph commented editorially on the vest Howard appeared to be wearing: 'Australia reached a confronting milestone yesterday when the Prime Minister wore a bullet-proof vest to a public political rally. 'John Howard, no doubt acting on specialist advice, protected himself at the Sale gun rally meeting in a manner we had never thought necessary. 'But it seems that just as the Port Arthur massacre brutally convinced us we are not immune from senseless slaughter, the subsequent gun debate has produced another frightening lesson.'