Solomon Says

The madness of civilian disarmament in the South Pacific

By Dave Kopel, Dr. Paul Gallant, & Dr. Joanne Eisen of the Independence Institute 

11/27/00 10:05 a.m., National Review Online

ome Americans remember Guadalcanal Island as the location of the first U.S. amphibious invasion in World War II. The Island witnessed some of the fiercest fighting in the War in the Pacific, with Americans landing from August 1942 until February 1943, when the intense Japanese resistance in the jungle interior was finally defeated. Few Americans, however, know that half a century later, Guadalcanal has been the site of intense fighting. For the last 2 years, according to the New Zealand Herald, Guadalcanal has become "one of the Pacific's most dangerous hotspots."

It is a hotspot that may get worse because of gun control.

Situated in the South Pacific, with a population of about 455,000, the Solomon Islands comprise 10 major islands, along with an additional 1,000 small islands, atolls, and reefs. Honiara, its capitol, is located on the largest of its islands, Guadalcanal. And while the Solomon Islands' nickname is "The Happy Isles," that will now have to change.

The roots of the present conflict in the Solomon Islands date back to World War II, when Malaitans, inhabitants from the nearby island of Malaita, migrated to Guadalcanal and helped in the efforts to bring about an Allied victory. After the War, the Solomons fell under British rule until 1978, when they achieved independence.

But while Malaitans came to Guadalcanal in increasing numbers and established themselves as enterprising, aggressive, and successful immigrants, they also became the focus of resentment of the island's local inhabitants. The Guadalcanal natives complained that Malaitans were taking jobs and land.

The boiling point came in 1998 with the formation of the Isatabu Freedom Movement (IFM). Using violence and terror, the IFM drove 20,000-30,000 Malaitans from their homes in rural Guadalcanal to the relative safety of the city of Honiara, or back to their home island.

The response was the formation of the Malaitan Eagle Force (MEF). On June 5, 2000, after raiding the main police weapons armory in Rove, the MEF staged a bloodless coup, forcing the appointment of an interim government.

Within hours after the coup, members of the IFM, in turn, took over a police post near the Delta Gold Ltd. gold mine, broke into the armory there, and stole a large cache of weapons. The mine employs both New Zealanders and Australians.

Glenys Kinnock and John Corrie, two British members of the European Parliament visiting the Solomons in an attempt to act as mediators, had to flee to Papua New Guinea.

Said Corrie, "I have spoken to the people carrying guns. There are hundreds of young men out there, some in camouflage outfits, some almost naked. There is a very uncomfortable feeling. The real worry is that many of these weapons are homemade. There are vast dumps here of ammunition from the Second World War. These guys are digging up dumps and using galvanized piping to create barrels to fit any bullets they can find."

New Zealand and Australian diplomats tried to avert an all-out civil war. New Zealand Prime Minister Phil Goff ruled out military intervention by both countries, fearing outside troops could be caught up in the civil war. "We have some influence, but no control," he observed. Nevertheless, it was clear by mid-June that the Solomon Islands were headed for full-scale civil war, pitting native Guadalcanal islanders against the immigrant settlers from Malaita Island. And with ensuing fierce jungle battles, the country threatened to sink rapidly into a state of total anarchy.

That was prevented by a cease-fire agreement reached on August 2 between the two warring ethnic factions, paving the way for the Townsville Peace Agreement, and a formal end to the hostilities between the MEF and IMF "for the restoration of peace and ethnic harmony in Solomon Islands."

The Agreement was brokered by Australia and New Zealand — and sweetened by financial incentives funded to help generously resettle dispossessed Islanders.

Still, there can be no doubt that it was clear distrust of outside intermediaries on the part of the Agreement's signatories which led to the condition that "peace monitors" — police and military officers of the Peace Monitoring Council sent to the Solomons — be unarmed.

The Townsville Peace Agreement requires total disarmament: the surrender of all weapons and ammunition by members of the MEF and the IFM, the prohibition of "camouflaged clothing and military uniforms...from all urban centers and villages," and "a general ban on sale of toy guns and other miniature items or gimmicks throughout the Solomon Islands." Lastly, the Agreement provides for "the recall of all licensed firearms within Honiara, Guadalcanal, and Malaita provinces." Just one more example in a long litany showing that registration of firearms facilitates confiscation.

There are striking differences between the present conflict and its World War II predecessor. The magnitude of bloodshed in this civil war pales in comparison to the earlier fighting that took place there; it has been estimated that "more than 70 deaths" have occurred during the current fighting, in contrast to 25,000 Japanese and 1,700 U.S. deaths. And there are comedic elements to this one: the main "offensive" weapon used by the MEF consisted of "an armored bulldozer fitted with heavy machineguns."

However, the philosophical ramifications of the present conflict extend beyond an important military victory in a global battle between good and evil, as was the case during World War II, or the relative paucity of loss of life now. They lie in the strategies we are asked to accept today, at face value, and which we are assured will most effectively save the lives of innocent citizens.

Criminologist Don B. Kates and law professor Dan Polsby succinctly summed up the folly and dangers of civilian disarmament in Vol. 75 of the Washington University Law Quarterly(1997):

It is not in fact true that a world without guns must be a world without violence. Nonviolence was not the characteristic state of the world before there were guns, and it is not the characteristic state of the world now in places where access to guns is practically or legally restricted.

As Kates and Polsby further pointed out, "marauders attacking a house or town have often been defeated by a far outnumbered party of defenders armed with guns, whereas hand-to-hand combat invariably favors the stronger company."

Giving up guns today, dismantling the bulldozer with its machine gun, and confiscating homemade "pipe" guns, does not translate into disarmament 10 years from now, one year from now, or even next month. It is a fact that pipe guns can be made faster than anyone can confiscate them, and bulldozers can be quickly and easily converted back into makeshift tanks. The same factors and ethnic differences which caused this most recent conflict still remain in force in the Solomons — despite the Townsville Peace Agreement — and will remain for decades more.

Disarming the civilian population only serves to ensure that the certain, eventual rearmament will be uneven, with the criminal elements the most likely to be the first to rearm. When all one seems to hear today is the mantra of "commonsense gun control", this "commonsense" lesson about gun control should have been carved into stone long ago.

Whether it's the Solomon Islands or somewhere else like Rwanda, after a genocide facilitated by disarmament, it will be cold comfort to the victims when today's "peacekeepers" come back and say "Oops, I guess we made a mistake."

Innocent citizens caught in the middle of any life-threatening conflict — like Los Angeles in 1992, or Guadalcanal in 2000, or the next time 911 fails to deliver — need to know right now which strategy will be the most likely to protect their lives, and the lives of their families.  

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