Recent headlines are clear: our world is a fearful place, spattered with blood, angry men and loose guns. But not everywhere.
One sprawling region has largely avoided, and at times even reversed, the steady proliferation of illegal firearms and death by gunshot. Twelve out of 16 Pacific Islands Forum nations are patrolled by routinely unarmed police. Ten have no military. With little or no opposition, island communities of the south-west Pacific have both resolved in law and been actively encouraged to remain unarmed.
This is no mere accident. When the nine-year war of secession in Bougainville ended in 1997, as many as 12,000 to 15,000 people had died. Since then, Pacific governments have done their best to disarm the neighbourhood.
That’s quite a change. Decades ago Australia stocked the state armouries of newly independent Papua New Guinea with many thousands of assault rifles and handguns. Later, Canberra was dismayed to learn that three-quarters of the country’s police and military firearms were no longer on the books. By then, from the PNG Highlands to Bougainville, from the Solomon Islands to Fiji, guns given to governments had fuelled a string of military coups and mutinies, tribal and ethnic violence, rising armed crime and gun homicide.
As realization dawned with the new century, the clean-up began. Pacific nations forged a largely unnoticed but, in retrospect, startling regional consensus, which now sets us apart from much of the world.
Taking a different path in a world full of arms
Instead of rushing in more guns to restore peace, in Melanesia we tried the opposite. For the rule of law and human rights to be re-established, for health care and justice to be accessible, for good work to proceed in a safe environment, firearms were seen as the most immediate impediment to recovery and redevelopment.
In 2001, deliberately unarmed peacemakers and a locally designed Bougainville peace process tied disarmament and weapons disposal to aspirations for political autonomy and independence. Many guns were locked away and shootings are now rare.
Police and military armouries in a dozen Pacific states, some of them no more than tin shacks, became a sudden priority of donor nations. Australia and New Zealand deployed advisers, construction crews and millions of dollars to lock up and, in many cases, to destroy guns held by their Pacific Island neighbours.
Canberra quietly began to persuade and later to assist and fund the Papua New Guinea Defence Force (PNGDF) to destroy more than one-third of its small arms. The PNGDF went on to achieve one of the highest firearm destruction ratios of any military force in the world.
By 2003, when the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI) landed in Honiara to help the country out of crisis, the number one priority of Pacific governments – remarkably, with no audible argument – was the immediate collection and destruction of every firearm, both police and civilian. Amid overwhelming public support, more guns were destroyed than the country even knew it had. By law, Solomon Islands is now a gun-free nation; only a handful of specially trained police are permitted to carry firearms.
Gun controls do make a difference
What I’m calling the “Pacific consensus for disarmament” became a trend, and not just in the islands. Australia, the region’s big brother nation, led by its most conservative leader in decades and described by then-president George W. Bush as America’s sheriff in Southeast Asia, did what remains unthinkable in the United States. Australia banned the semi-automatic rifles originally advertised by the gun trade as “assault weapons”, along with rapid-fire shotguns and handgun types favoured by criminals.
Shocked by a string of mass shootings, in which 100 people were killed, Australians turned on their gun culture. Amid polls showing up to 95 percent popular approval, two federally funded firearm buybacks and dozens of smaller, police-led gun amnesties sent more than a million firearms, or one-third of the country’s privately held guns, to the smelter.
More than eighteen years after firearm laws were tightened – in which time a minority have continued to push for a relaxation – the risk of dying by gunshot in Australia remains less than half what it was. Until five months ago, when a gun owner shot dead four members of his family and then himself, those years also passed without a mass shooting.
Domestic gun-control measures and foreign policy moved in tandem as Australia and New Zealand, hubs for Pacific commerce, clamped down on the island arms trade. New Zealand denied an export permit to ship ammunition to a Vanuatu gun dealer for fear of fuelling ethnic violence in the Solomon Islands. Australia choked off exports to Papua New Guinea, creating such a shortage of bullets that mercenary gunmen in the Southern Highlands complained of difficulty servicing their clients.
Although they remain the largest players in the local arms trade, New Zealand and Australia now contribute more to arms control in Oceania than to arms proliferation.
Flow of weapons fuels killings and war
And here’s the contrast. Earlier this month, US President Barack Obama once again mulled shipping firearms to Ukraine. Across the Middle East, the standard response to conflict has been to fly in more guns to enforce peace.
In just one case in Iraq, Washington’s own Government Accountability Office found that 200,000 assault rifles and Glock pistols newly imported for US allies could no longer be found. In the CIA’s own terminology, “blowback” means that today’s freedom fighter could be tomorrow’s criminal, or even terrorist.
But here’s the more Pacific approach. In 2006 a regional intervention force landed in Dili, the capital of Australia’s island neighbour East Timor. Its first priority was to disarm the Timorese military and police, then to strip local gangs of their weapons. “We will be disarming everybody in Dili,” said Brigadier Mick Slater. Two months later, peacekeepers were confident that most illegal firearms had been surrendered.
Granted, Pacific neighbours all tend to be good friends, with no nearby conflict zones or arms-trafficking routes. Organised crime, cocaine and opium cultivation have not thrived. Aside from a post office worker importing a couple of hundred Glock pistols for Australian criminals, no interdiction agency can point to a sizeable shipment of illegal small arms or ammunition reaching this region since the 1980s.
Australia has an ant trade – one or two guns at a time, often smuggled in parts via US Mail – but a quirk of calibre spared us the “AK-47 plagues” of Africa and South Asia. Global alliances dictate that Pacific law enforcement and military choose NATO-calibre firearms and ammunition. After local police and soldiers supplied the most destructive firearms used in crime and conflict, and after even a PNG police minister admitted “indiscriminate sale of ammunition to the public” by police officers, it was easy to see supply dictating demand.
In Oceania, ammunition to fit Eastern Bloc weapons is very rare. And without bullets, even an AK-47 is just a club.
Clearly our points of difference as a region and as Pacific people created today’s pacific climate. But which difference is key? Are we less violent people?
Interviewed about lethal crime in America, eminent criminologist Franklin Zimring discounted that notion: "You’re just as likely to get punched in the mouth in a bar in Sydney as in a bar in Los Angeles. But you’re 20 times as likely to be killed in Los Angeles."
The difference, Zimring said, is guns.
Oceania has quite unconsciously forged a new attitude, all on its own. For the time being at least, we’ve re-written a popular American slogan. Our regional bumper sticker now reads: "An unarmed society is a polite society."
Philip Alpers is Adjunct Associate Professor, Sydney School of Public Health at University of Sydney. He is founding director of GunPolicy.org, a global project of the Sydney School of Public Health which compares armed violence, firearm injury prevention and gun law across 300 jurisdictions world-wide. He is a director of the Centre for Armed Violence Reduction and its AVR Monitor, based in London and Sydney, and acts as regional media contact for the Pacific Small Arms Action Group (PSAAG).