Guns galore - Miriam Coronel Ferrer

Posted at 07/17/09 12:36 AM

Once again, the government is issuing a general firearms amnesty. In October, all those whose guns are not duly licensed may have their weapons registered, no questions asked.

Amnesties are meant to encourage those who are in violation of the law to straighten out their situation. But how often should amnesties be given? If it is given too often, people are not pushed to comply with the law from the start.

This is the case with gun amnesty. Those who are using unlicensed guns for illegal purposes will never voluntarily register. Moreover, those in possession of illegally manufactured or traded firearms cannot even admit to possessing such.

Gun amnesty as such is a minimalist, lazy man’s way of enforcing the law.  It is a poor substitute to proactively halting the proliferation of unlicensed firearms and other illegal weapons used for violent ends. Proactive means can include arrests and prosecution for illegal possession, production and trading of such guns, penalizing loss of government-issued guns and those registered with security agencies,  and the rigorous tracking of confiscated and abandoned firearms already in the hands of authorities.

As of May 2009, the Philippine National Police reported 1,110,277 loose firearms in the country. The PNP defines loose firearms as those rifles, muskets, carbines, shot guns, revolvers, pistols and similar weapons that are not registered or have expired licenses, or are in the possession of a person other than the registered owner. Of the total number, 15,676 are supposedly with the “threat groups,” while 5,726 are with criminal elements.

Just how the PNP can count these unlicensed guns in circulation down to the last piece is amazing! In any case, it would seem that the count is conservative. According to Ateneo de Manila University’s politics professor Jennifer Santiago Oreta’s study,  the  Small Arms Survey estimated as high as five million and no lower than 2.8 million loose firearms in circulation in the country in 2007.   

Also the small number the PNP alleges to bein the hands of criminal elements does not jibe with the high incidence of crimes involving loose firearms.

Oreta found that from 1993 to 2003, 13,365 firearms were used in various crimes. Of this number, only 15 percent were licensed. The figure worsened in more recent years. In 2004 and 2006, unlicensed guns accounted for 99 percent of guns used in reported or documented crime. The year 2007, an election year, also saw a spike in unregistered firearms.

New, innovative ways of making firearms available for whatever purpose are also emerging in the market. Oreta recalled interviewing a woman serving sentence at the Women’s Correctional for killing her husband. Her weapon of choice was a gun, which she rented from a shop, just like one would rent a DVD movie!

From 1991-2007, the government has issued 11 amnesty declarations. Despite this, the number of unlicensed firearms increased. The consecutive amnesty programs were obviously not solving the problem.

This conclusion has not escaped the Philippine National Police. That’s why it is hoping that the current amnesty program, which will run from July to October, will be the last. Executive Order No. 817 issued by Arroyo on 7 July is after all called the “Final General Firearms Amnesty.”

Legitimate gun manufactures are also not in favor of more gun amnesties because it is the illicit traders of firearms, their unwanted competitors, who benefit from the soft approach.

These illegal sources include smugglers, the unregistered paltik producers in places like Danao (Cebu), and losses declared by law enforcement agencies and private security firms.

Whether these losses were incurred voluntarily or not is a valid question.  Various sources have corroborated the practice of selling of government-issued firearms to various anti-state armed groups. A high-ranking police officer I interviewed in 1999 in Cotabato City openly admitted the practice of soldiers selling their armalites to civilians and rebel groups.  The latter was one of the most serious accusations of the Oakwood mutineers in 2003 against their own establishment.

Firearms lost through this unscrupulous practice are simply declared lost in the battlefield. 

The  lack of capability to muzzle loose/unlicensed and illegal firearms and culpability of people in uniform in dubious gun-related transactions indicates to us how weak our enforcement agencies are. But then we already knew that.

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