Guns in Papua New Guinea

Sydney University academic Philip Alpers has just released a terrific report (PDF) on gun-running in PNG, which involved him approaching violent highland militia leaders, and asking if they’d mind him checking out their guns. He notes that:

In the volatile Southern Highlands Province (SHP) of Papua New Guinea (PNG), approximately 2,450 factory-made firearms are held by private owners. These include between 500 and 1,040 high-powered weapons, most of which are assault rifles. Very few of the guns in SHP were smuggled from foreign countries. Instead, police and soldiers within PNG supplied the most destructive firearms used in crime and conflict.

The most common illegal assault rifle is the Australian-made self-loading rifle (SLR), closely followed by the US-made M16, both of which come from PNG Defence Force (PNGDF) stocks. Most of the remainder are AR15s, obtained from PNG police. The Kalashnikov AK-47 and its variants are rare, with ammunition even more so.

Although Southern Highlanders own 30–50 times fewer factory-made firearms per capita than nearby Australians or New Zealanders, their high-powered weapons are obtained almost exclusively for use against humans.

Philip’s recommendations are:

In the short term, restricting the flow of ammunition to PNG could remain the single most-effective tool to prevent gun death and injury. In the longer term, ‘guns for development’ schemes show promise, though these could be quickly corrupted if not carefully designed and monitored, and accompanied by justice and security reforms. Although widely favoured by policymakers as an instinctive and inexpensive option, gun surrenders and buy-backs rarely make an impact on injury and death rates. Any such initiatives should first consider the international experience, which includes many decades of failed gun amnesties.

I don’t know the literature on overseas buybacks. Still, the best study on the 1996-97 Australian buyback (by Peter Reuter and Jenny Mouzos) found that it led to a crime drop. But this is a minor quibble – I think Philip’s focus on ammunition sales to PNG is spot on.

Incidentally, on pages 233-235 of Imagining Australia, we suggest that the 1995 Canberra Commission be revitalised, and its mandate extended to look at the issue of small arms.

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