IT’S often thought, in both developing and developed states, that stricter gun laws are a solution to reducing gun crimes and the broader problems of law and order.
Tragic public shootings in the United States, for example, often provoke demands for tighter gun laws and stoke social outrage that everyday citizens are entitled to possess firearms.
In Papua New Guinea, a nation with an international reputation for lawlessness and violence, outlawing guns has recently emerged as a common sense way to reduce gun crime. “There's no need to carry guns,” says the Governor of Enga Province Sir Peter Ipatas. “If we can have no guns it will go a long way towards maintaining law and order.”
But tougher laws, let alone a desirable objective of ‘no guns’, is a far from straightforward policy solution to law and order.
Some countries, for example, have high rates of legal gun ownership but very low murder rates, as witnessed in Israel, New Zealand and Finland. By contrast, some countries — Russia, Brazil and Mexico for example — employ strict gun control laws but endure stubbornly high murder rates.
An obvious reason is that belligerents – traditionally living outside the law – are unlikely to follow state-sanctioned rules. In this sense the majority of people penalised are those that actually follow the rules – law-abiding citizens.
How about taking existing guns out of circulation? Here, again, is an enforcement issue. Porous borders enable arms to cross borders. And basic law enforcement has been a consistent problem in PNG.
Law enforcement, in fact, appears to be a large source of PNG’s weapons supply problem. As an instructive 2005 Small Arms Survey – one of the only recent rigorous firearms surveys to be conducted in the country – revealed that….
“Very few commercially made, high-powered firearms are smuggled into PNG from foreign countries. Instead, the majority are stolen from fellow countrymen who own them legally, but fail to keep them securely.
“Most of these leak from state-owned stocks, although many are also taken from lawful owners during burglaries and in other crime. In recent years, soldiers and police provided the most destructive firearms used in crime and conflict in PNG.”
One of the solutions, ironically, is to now start unarming PNG’s police and reduce the presence of state-owned firearms.
PNG Police Minister Robert Atiyafa, for example, says he is directing police to resist from carrying firearms in public.
“They will leave the guns to the special units,” says Atiyafa, “and for those officers like the transport officers or traffic officers or other general duty policeman they can have them in vehicles or identified vehicles and to encourage them not to show any guns when they are on the beat.”
The outcome, ironically, may lead to a situation in PNG where criminals have guns but the police, conversely, must draw on dwindling supplies.
Although public discussion around gun laws is contentious, this, ultimately, is because the objective is of fundamental importance to any nation: maintaining law and order.
Whatever path PNG’s lawmakers pursue the international examples, which highlight the practical complexities of gun control, should not be ignored.
Sean Jacobs is an Australian and co-founder of New Guinea Commerce. He has worked with all levels of government in PNG