x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Philippine gunmakers take aim from the backyard to the production line

In the Philippines, elections mean big business for illegal gunsmiths, who are looking forward to the 2013 midterm polls.

A formerly illegal gunsmith inspects a newly assembled multi-action shotgun at Shooters Arms, a gun manufacturing company in Cebu in the central Philippines.
A formerly illegal gunsmith inspects a newly assembled multi-action shotgun at Shooters Arms, a gun manufacturing company in Cebu in the central Philippines.

MANDAUE CITY, PHILIPPINES // In the Philippines, they vote with their trigger fingers. Elections mean big business for illegal gunsmiths, who are looking forward to 2013 midterm polls.

With election-related violence commonplace, the Philippines imposes a ban on the carrying of guns for six months, from campaigning to the proclamation of winners.

With legal access denied, Filipinos simply turn to the many illegal gunsmiths who ply their trade in back alleys and on the edge of rice fields despite government crackdowns.

In Danao City, in the north-east of central Cebu island, they are already anticipating a windfall.

"There's actually huge demand for guns, especially now and because of the elections next year," said a 33-year-old gunsmith, who asked to be named only as Remo, as he hammered away at bits of scrap metal in a makeshift factory.

Loud music drowned out the noise of Remo's workshop on the edge of a dry creek, hidden from view by thick bamboo groves, as he and two assistants hammered, filed and drilled away.

"We are actually having some difficulty in keeping up with the orders because it usually takes at least two weeks to make one .45-calibre pistol, even if I work 16 hours a day," he said.

As the pro- and anti-gun lobbies in the United States agonise over how to respond to yet another gun massacre, in the Philippines many want even more liberal gun laws to boost production of a small but growing legal industry.

Guns have long been part of everyday life in the Philippines, especially since the end of the Second World War.

After the war, farmers took up arms during agrarian unrest in the late 1940s and early 1950s and then a Maoist insurgency that has become one of the world's longest-running conflicts.

Today, all private security guards in the Philippines carry either handguns or shotguns, or both. Guns are a common sight in shopping malls, government and private offices, banks, restaurants and even schools.

"When we were children, we were already surrounded by guns. It was the world of our fathers," said Elmer Genzon, a third-generation gunsmith who once made "paltik", or illegal weapons, out of scrap metal and bits of angle iron.

"We grew up making guns."

According to www.gunpolicy.org, a site hosted by the University of Sydney's School of Public Health in Australia, there are about 3.9 million guns - legal and illegal - held by civilians in the Philippines, or about 4.7 per 100 people.

That puts the Philippines 105th place on a list of 179 countries, tiny in comparison to the 88.8 per 100 in the United States and behind even Australia with 15 per 100.

While it is impossible to count the number of illegal guns in the Philippines, the national police estimate there are about 350,000, again paltry in comparative terms to Central and South American weapons hot spots like Guatemala, Honduras and Colombia.

Yet the Philippines suffers worryingly high gun-crime rates.

According to the latest available figures from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, there were 8.9 homicides per 100,000 people in 2003, by far the worst in Asia and outstripping Europe.

While not at the levels of Central and South America, the number was still almost triple that of the United States, which had 3.3 homicides per 100,000 people the same year.

Illegal guns are not just carried by criminal gangs, Maoist rebels and Muslim separatists. They also belong to civilians and politicians who keep private armies.

Investigations into the Ampatuan family, a political clan linked to the 2009 massacre of 57 people, including dozens of journalists, found more than 1,000 high-powered weapons, including mortars and .50-calibre machineguns.

Existing laws allow Filipinos to own one "long" firearm - a rifle or shotgun - and one handgun. Guns are meant to be licensed and owners must have permits to carry them in public.

Demetrio Tuason, head of the largest and oldest manufacturer in the Philippines, Armscor, wants gun licences more like driving licences, allowing people to "own as many guns as they can afford".

Not surprisingly, gun sellers also want to expand the industry, worth about 2.5 billion pesos (Dh220 million). But, just like in the United States, there seems little appetite to change existing laws. "That's not a priority right now," President Benigno Aquino said this month.

Much like the United States, guns are so deeply ingrained in Philippines culture that they don't expect the July 20 shooting in a Colorado cinema, in which 12 people were killed and 58 wounded, will have much of an effect.

"For the last 22 years we've been telling our lawmakers ... to pass a strict gun control law but nothing has happened," said Nandy Pacheco of the Gunless Society group.

"Our gun laws are encouraging a culture of guns, a culture of violence. When do we act? Are we waiting for a similar attack to happen here in our movie houses?"