This is the case in the autonomous region of Bougainville in the east of the country, where disarmament remains elusive more than ten years after a civil war fought over resource exploitation.
“Guns are now being used in domestic violence and armed robberies, and to settle land issues,” said Helen Hakena, director of the Leitana Nehan Women's Development Agency in Bougainville.
“Recently there have also been armed hold-ups and shoot-outs between gun owners and police. Many people in Bougainville now accept guns as a normal part of life.”
Development and economic recovery in Bougainville have been slow over the past decade, and many issues from the civil war have not been resolved.
“We also see that guns are being traded between Bougainville and other parts of Papua New Guinea and across borders. People from the Highlands often come here to buy guns,” Hakena said.
Gun violence is no stranger to the small Melanesian communities in this part of the world, which over the past quarter century have experienced the Bougainville independence struggle (1989–1998), civil war in the Solomon Islands (1999-2003), and four military coups in Fiji between 1987 and 2006.
In Bougainville, 20,000 people were killed and more than 60,000 displaced, while a “lost generation” of children were denied education and infrastructure was decimated. In the Solomon Islands, communities were ravaged by armed violence and arson, development came to a halt, and the local economy collapsed.
There has been no armed conflict in Melanesia – which comprises Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Fiji and New Caledonia – or the wider Pacific Islands for nearly a decade. But Gordon Nanau, a lecturer in politics and international affairs at the University of the South Pacific in Fiji, said that was no reason for complacency.
“Whether there are serious conflicts or not, arms circulation should always be a big concern,” he emphasised. “Pacific Islanders are concerned about the issue of illegal arms smuggling. With weapons around, communities are less safe, and supplies of arms passing through the Pacific must be discouraged at all costs.”
The Pacific Islands account for a fraction of the global legal trade in small arms and light weapons estimated to be worth more than 8.5 billion dollars in 2012. However, there are 3.1 million civilian-owned firearms in the Pacific region, or one per ten people, which is 50 percent above the world average. And they outnumber those held by military and police forces by a ratio of 14:1.
Papua New Guinean civilians possess the largest number of guns in Melanesia, with an estimated 72,000 or 1.2 guns per 100 people, while police and defence forces hold approximately 19,000 firearms. New Caledonia is second with up to 50,000 civilian-held guns. And in the Solomon Islands, since disarmament, during which 90 percent of firearms were surrendered, there are believed to be 1,775 privately owned guns, or 0.35 per 100 people.
Gun violence is a serious issue in Papua New Guinea. The capital, Port Moresby, with a population of 450,000, has a murder rate of approximately 54 per 100,000 people, compared to an average global rate of less than 7 per 100,000 people.
And in the Southern Highlands, where an estimated 90 percent of firearms are illegally owned, 23 percent of households have been victimised by guns.
The Small Arms Survey, an independent research project located at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, concludes that crime is driven by the breakdown of traditional values, limited employment opportunities, inequality and disputes over resource ownership. Incentives for acquiring guns include self-defence and a sense of duty to defend tribal or clan interests.
And according to Oxfam International, “the impact of small arms is especially damaging in the Pacific region because of a lack of state capacity, corruption and the illegal sale and diversion of ammunition to armed groups and individuals.”
The majority of firearms used in conflicts and crime in Melanesia have been leaked or stolen from legal police and military sources. The Small Arms Survey estimates up to 30 percent of guns in public holdings in Papua New Guinea are siphoned or sold to civilians and armed groups, with the illegal trade and smuggling of guns financed by politicians and the educated elite. Poverty and low wages have exacerbated corruption.
In 2005, Papua New Guinea's Guns Control Committee produced a report which made numerous recommendations for gun reforms. But these have never been acted upon.
There is also a known link between the trade in guns and drugs. In the Pacific Islands, the illicit commercial cultivation of marijuana has been identified in Fiji, Palau, Samoa, Tonga and Papua New Guinea, where it is regularly traded for firearms.
However, many law enforcement agencies in the Pacific Islands are under-funded, with limited capacity to implement existing gun laws or monitor the extensive maritime traffic between isolated and sparsely populated islands.
Today there are no regional agreements regulating arms transfers or the activities of arms brokers, while gun legislation varies across Pacific Island states.
The Pacific Islands Forum, an inter-governmental organisation of 16 independent and self-governing island states, which is concerned about the threat posed by illegal guns and light weapons to stability and socioeconomic well-being, has endorsed the United Nations Programme of Action on small arms and light weapons and initiated measures to address arms circulation.
The Model Weapons Control Bill was developed and accepted by member states in 2003, and was further updated in 2010 to include brokering provisions. The challenge is consistent application across states.
“The implementation of the Model Weapons Bill is a matter for members of the Pacific Islands Forum to consider based on their specific national priorities,” a spokesperson for the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat said.
“Some countries face immense firearm and law and order challenges and accordingly have undertaken activities to assess the issues they face and are working towards improving gun control and law and order.”
Another regional initiative is the Pacific Transnational Crime Network, a collaboration of law enforcement, customs and immigration agencies across the Pacific, sponsored by the Australian Federal Police, which is working to build the capacity of island states to combat transnational crime.
But ultimately, reducing the quantities, circulation and misuse of guns in Melanesia also entails diminishing their demand through raising levels of development, socioeconomic equality and human security, and effectively tackling corruption.