Gun violence

Apple Santiago Oreta

Posted on February 28, 2012

We were walking back home -- my husband and two small kids in tow -- after a fun-filled river exploration. We were vacationing in a cousin’s place, north of Manila. The road was empty, save for a guy in motorbike in front of a small makeshift nipa hut-kerosene store. Two loud noises cracked the silence, and another guy came running out of the nipa hut.

He jumped in the waiting motorbike, and the two hurriedly left. My mind was slow in processing the events; I even locked glances with the guy in the passenger seat while he put something inside his shirt. It only hit me that something was off when two women came out from the adjacent house, shouting that their relative had been shot. We were 10 meters away. And we witnessed an extrajudicial killing.

Saying that there are too many guns in circulation, and far too many guns accessible to whoever needs them is stating the obvious.

In the first semester of 2008, PNP data declared that there were 1,081,074 licensed firearms, half of which were in the NCR. What is interesting is that 70% of legal arms in circulation are in civilian or private hands, and only 30% are with the police, military, deputized government employees/officials, elected officials, reservist, and diplomatic corps combined.

Loose firearms (i.e. bought from legal dealers but unlicensed or owner’s license has lapsed) in 2010 were pegged at 1.1 million. However, there is no accurate estimate of illegal guns in circulation (i.e., firearms in the hands of criminal syndicates, armed rebel groups, private armies, and individual private owners), although Small Arms Survey (2007) pegs the number of all firearms in circulation in the Philippines at 3.9 million (high of five million; low of 2.8 million).

The issue of gun proliferation and violence is an old theme. Yet, the public usually looks at it as a cursory topic. Truly, the issue of gun proliferation is contentious.

One, gun ownership is a controversial topic. In the US, it stirred constitutional debates. In the Philippines, enthusiasts attempt to invoke the right to self-defense as a constitutional guarantee to gun possession. There are "pro" and "anti" positions as regards gun ownership. The topic is polarizing.

Two, not many people view gun-proliferation as the issue. In a society that has been de-sensitized by violence, gun violence is dismissed as part of the "way things are." We have, in fact, found ways to "cushion" the reality of deaths -- if the number of gun-related deaths during elections is within the acceptable boundary, we call it "relatively peaceful"; civilian deaths due to conflict between the government forces and rebels are considered as "collateral damage"; a driver getting shot because of a traffic altercation is regarded as an "isolated event." What’s given attention are the crime rate, the insurgency, and the election violence. The most obvious is often glossed over -- all of these involved guns, and all of these became issues precisely because of the easy access to guns.

Three, guns or firearms, in a society with weak security enforcement are regarded with ambivalence. Those who doubt the capacity of security law enforcers view it as an instrument of protection. This is especially true in conflict areas. Yet, those who do not have guns view gun owners with distress. In the hands of organized groups -- whether state or non-state -- firearms become an instrument of power and coercion. Possession of firearms inherently creates a security issue in a community setting.

Regardless of whether or not one approves of civilian gun possession, the reality remains -- the easy access to firearms exacerbates the conflict formation and dynamics in the country. The Philippine Human Development Report (2004) posited that perceptions and experience of deprivation are impetus for conflict formation. The reality of unmet needs, both economic and political, fuels the perception of deprivation that further push people to resort to violence. Criminality and insurgency thrive in a context where the perception of relative deprivation is high.

"The demand for small arms and light weapons is often fuelled by conditions of insecurity, oppression, human rights violations and under-development." (UNDP Essentials No. 9, Nov. 2002)

In "conflict" areas where rebel groups have strong presence, the easy access to guns can instigate or even intensify existing hostilities between and among groups. More guns in circulation can further exacerbate the already volatile social, political, and economic divides that exist in Philippine society.

Note that the easy availability of firearms is not an isolated event in the Philippines. The local-global dynamics is too real in the trading of guns that advocates are now pushing for an International Arms Trade Treaty. Current international rules regarding firearms are too lax; trade of bananas is actually more regulated than arms.

The international group Control Arms Coalition declares: "States have an historic opportunity to help save lives and livelihoods by bringing the deadly arms trade under control. The process of the Arms Trade Treaty is our best way to tackle this problem."

Locally, more stringent measures must be instituted to go after illegal guns, reduce the number of loose firearms, and strengthen regulation on civilian ownership.

My then four-year-old daughter asked what the loud noise was, why there were too many people in the nipa hut, and why is the hurt man not yet taken to the hospital. I swallowed hard and began to explain.

The column today is based on the book, Gun Proliferation and Violence Complicating Conflict Dynamics and Peace Building, written by this author, to be released in March 2012. The author is the convener of the ADMU Political Science Department-Working Group on Security Sector Reform (WG-SSR), a group of faculty, staff, and students involved in research and projects on SSR. Comments are welcome appleoreta@gmail.com