Called by Mr Howard after the slaughter in Tasmania 11 days ago, the meeting is seen as a make-or-break attempt to bring in strict, uniform controls, smother the political influence of the rural-based gun lobby and head off a growing "gun culture". In New South Wales, the most populous state, the rate of murders committed with guns is one-tenth that in America, but seven times greater than in England and Wales. Since 1984, 87 people have died in mass shootings in Australia.
Military-style, semi-automatic weapons and pump-action shotguns were used in the four worst shooting sprees. Duncan Chappell, a Sydney criminologist, said yesterday: "If we can't get over the top at this point, I would be pessimistic about us ever being able to do it."
Mr Chappell headed an inquiry by the National Committee on Violence after two mass shootings in Melbourne in 1987 left 15 people dead. It concluded prophetically that, unless there were tighter gun controls, more such horrors would follow. Canberra banned the import of automatic and semi- automatic weapons as a result.
But power over guns remains with Australia's six parochially-minded state governments. Most have quivered at threats by the wealthy gun lobby, backed by the powerful American National Rifle Association, to use its political muscle in country regions where farmers see gun ownership as a right.
Meanwhile, the national arsenal has grown insidiously. Mr Chappell's inquiry estimated there were four million guns in Australia, roughly one for every five Australians. Other estimates suggest 10 million, most unregistered.
According to Daryl Williams, the federal attorney-general, there may be three million semi-automatic, self-loading or pump-action guns in Australia and a further 350,000 military-style, semi-automatic weapons. Federal and state ministers have met 20 times over the past six years, but failed to agree on reforms such as a national gun registration scheme, a ban on mail-order sales - which is how Port Arthur gunman Martin Bryant obtained his weapons - and rules on safety training and gun storage.
Having exposed the flimsiness of Australia's rules and shocked the nation, the Tasmanian massacre is likely to prove a turning point. Mr Howard will tomorrow present a plan for uniform national laws which include a complete ban on the use of automatic and semi-automatic weapons, rules restricting other guns to approved groups, and tighter vetting of people granted licences.
There will be a six month amnesty for the surrender of banned weapons, and jail terms of up to seven years for those failing to comply. Mr Howard will propose compensation for those who surrender outlawed guns, a scheme that could cost $300m (pounds 150m). Public opinion is overwhelmingly behind the proposals. Opinion polls show support over 90 per cent.Reuse content