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Filipinos seek stricter gun rules after carnage

Publication Date : 11-01-2013


A spate of particularly grim shootings in the Philippines - a country awash with legal and illegal firearms - has set off calls from political and religious leaders and crime-weary citizens for stricter gun controls.

Administration officials say President Benigno Aquino, a keen target shooter, is studying proposals. But a permanent extension of a ban on carrying guns outside residences from this Sunday until the end of May's mid-term polls to reduce election violence is seen as highly unlikely.

Public anger over the incidents began with the death of a seven- year-old girl hit in the head by a stray bullet fired by a reveller on New Year's Day.

Two days later, intoxicated gunman Ronald Bae killed eight people, including a pregnant woman and a child, and wounded 12 in a murderous rampage in his neighbourhood in Kawit town, near Manila, before being shot dead by police.

Then last Sunday, at a security checkpoint in Quezon province, 13 armed men in two vehicles died in a hail of police gunfire in murky circumstances under investigation. Among the dead suspects were reportedly three policemen and two members of the air force, as well as the suspected kingpin of an illegal gambling operation.

That these high-profile shootings happened within days of one another has stoked a heated gun control debate in official and public circles.

Justice Secretary Leila de Lima, who describes herself as a "pro- responsible gun owner", said the overwhelming majority of gun crimes are committed with illegally owned firearms.

Once these are reeled in, she told local television on Wednesday, "then perhaps we can talk about no firearms being carried by civilians" who own licensed firearms.

According to police estimates, there are about one million illegal firearms on the loose. About half of them have expired licences; the rest come from a variety of sources, including cheap knock-offs of branded firearms made by backyard gunsmiths.

Police reckon about 20,000 firearms are in the hands of "threat groups": communist and Muslim insurgents, criminals and the private armies of political strongmen.

"Mobilising community support to bring in illegal firearms would be an effective solution," said prominent anti-crime activist Teresita Ang-See. She adds that elected community officials generally know who owns illegal firearms in their neighbourhoods.

Crackdowns and amnesties have failed to bag large numbers of illegal firearms. Police data show 4,976 illegal firearms were seized in the first 10 months of last year, mostly from criminals.

"The country has tough gun laws but lax enforcement," said the Philippine Star in an editorial.

Legally buying a firearm is a fairly arduous process: Would-be buyers must undergo a psychological test and attend a gun safety course - and must not have a criminal record.

In the light of the latest gun carnage, some prominent lawmakers announced this week that they plan to review or update pending legislation on tougher gun controls.

"No question we need greater firearm control," Speaker of the House of Representatives Feliciano Belmonte told reporters.

The House last year passed a Bill to raise the maximum penalty for owning an unlicensed firearm to life imprisonment. But to become law, it needs to be matched by Senate legislation.

Senator Panfilo Lacson, a former police chief, plans to file legislation restricting firearms to residences and home protection.

The country's strong gun culture stems from a mixture of safety concerns and machismo.

First- time visitors to the Philippines often do a double-take at notices requesting patrons of restaurants, shops and government offices to deposit their firearms with a guard before entering.

The latest gun carnage will likely underscore perceptions that the Philippines is unsafe. Indeed, security concerns are preventing the country from fulfilling its considerable potential for tourism, although foreign visitors rarely come to grief here.

The Philippines has one of Southeast Asia's highest homicide rates, with 5.4 victims per 100,000 people and a body count of 4,947 in 2009, according to the latest United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime data.

Indonesia had a rate of 8.1 in 2006, Thailand 4.8 and Singapore 0.3 in 2011.

"We have become famous for this violence," Gunless Society of the Philippines founder Nandy Pacheco told local television.


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