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101 East

Stray Bullets

We venture into the crime-ridden neighbourhoods of the Philippines to examine if a new law can get rid of gun violence.

Last updated: 12 Feb 2014 18:02
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You do not need to look far to see how deeply embedded the gun culture is in the Philippines.

A woman’s handbag, a businessman’s briefcase, or a taxi driver’s glove compartment are just a few of the many places you will find some of the close to four million guns in the country - both legal and illegal.

A spate of shootings - particularly the death of seven-year-old Stephanie Ella from celebratory gunfire during New Year’s celebrations in 2013 - sparked outrage in a country where carrying a gun has become a normal part of everyday life.

Jay Ella, Stephanie’s father, puts a human face to the gun violence that scars the streets of the Philippines - a nation where a handgun can be bought for sometimes as little as $50.

Police figures show the number of crime incidents involving firearms increased from 3,300 in 2008 to more than 5,700 in 2010.

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The recent shooting deaths of civilians prompted the government to introduce a tougher gun law in May 2013. But a thriving black market in firearms offers a convenient alternative for those who do not meet the new regulations - with police among those who supply illegal weapons.

In Stray Bullets, 101 East meets dealers and gun-makers who both say they sell weapons to authorities - from police, to the military, to politicians.

The majority of illegal guns are found in Manila. And it is in Tondo, the capital’s most dangerous slum, notorious for shootings, that we meet members of the notorious Temple Street Trece gang, who use guns daily to “protect” themselves and their turf.

It is also here that we meet many recent victims of gun violence, including the wife of a 49-year-old mango seller, killed just days before our meeting, and the grandmother of a 17-year-old, gunned down by longtime bullies.

We also travel to Danao on the island of Cebu, a place known for its thriving backyard gun industry. Started when Spanish conquistadores first colonised the Philippines hundreds of years ago, the industry today is thriving, but operates out of the public eye. We talk to the gunsmiths making firearms from scrap metal. They talk of how brisk sales continue, despite the introduction of the new law.

The government’s new get-tough gun law, makes it more difficult for civilians to own firearms. Individuals seeking to buy them must pay more to register them, and now have to undergo more stringent drug and psychological tests. Those found in possession of illegal firearms will see their jail sentences double from a maximum of six to 12 years.

Pro-gun lobbyists such as Ernesto Tabujara, argue that the law is too strict, and that it goes against citizens’ rights to self-defence.

Chief Superintendent Louie Oppus from the Firearms and Explosives Office discounts such criticism. Saying the new law separates legitimate owners from illegal owners of firearms. But he also admits corruption in the force, and a general lack of enforcement by police is partly responsible for the proliferation of firearms in the country.

Norman Cabrera, of the anti-gun lobby, sees very little that is good about the new law. He argues that penalties for illegal gun ownership should be set at a maximum of 20 years, and that the new gun law should restrict the number of guns that an individual can own. Currently, there is no limit.

Polls show widespread support for greater gun control policies, and President Benigno Aquino III, has pledged to rid the country of unlicensed guns. But Aquino has been criticised for being a self-proclaimed “gun enthusiast” who reportedly owns 18 guns.

101 East pursues Aquino, along with all vested players in the gun debate, to ask: Will the new law put an end to the gun violence plaguing the Philippines?

How can the Philippines clean its streets from illegal firearms? Share your thoughts with us @AJ101East #StrayBullets

Reporter's blog

By Steve Chao

When the title for this documentary was chosen, few of us at 101 East realised at the time how fitting it would prove to be.

The name for the film was initially based on the death of Stephanie Nicole Ella, a seven-year old girl killed by a stray bullet in the Philippines, while watching fireworks on the eve of 2013. The gunman, while yet to be caught, reportedly fired into the air to celebrate the New Year.

A public outcry over Stephanie’s death, in part, led the government to pass a new gun law in May 2013 – one, it promised would further restrict gun use, and prevent such incidents from happening.

[The young learn that] power resides not with police or the law, but in those who hold firearms ... Their heroes are people with guns ... gang members, or criminals, and that only breeds more criminalisation.

Norman Cabrera, anti-gun lobby

Despite the new legislation, the 2014 New Year’s celebrations played out like a horrible repeat of the previous year. By dawn of January 1st, 28 people had been wounded by celebratory gunfire; a three-month-old baby, along with a two-year-old eventually died from their injuries.

When it comes to firearms, the Philippines stands in contrast to most places in Asia. Gun ownership is either banned or highly restricted in many countries, like Japan or South Korea, but the Philippines has a relatively liberal policy towards people having/owning guns.

Even the new law - while levying higher fees for possessing firearms, and imposing further restrictions on transporting weapons in public - sets no limits on how many guns someone can own.

Benigno Aquino III, the country’s president, reportedly owns 18 handguns. Louie Oppus, the superintendent of the police firearms department tells us, he has 15 weapons, including rifles.

Legal ownership of guns is not the problem - when we visited Manila’s many shooting ranges, we saw responsible owners firing rounds in very controlled environments.

It is the roughly two million illegal and unregistered firearms that pro-gun groups say are committing 99.9 percent of all crimes and are creating what anti-violence groups warn are the “spin-off effects” of a culture that “glamorises” guns.

Indeed, on the streets of Tondo, Manila’s most dangerous slum, many children run around firing toy guns.

Norman Cabrera of the anti-gun lobby says in places like these, where people are gunned down every day in real-life shootings, the young learn early on, that “power resides not with police or the law, but in those who hold firearms”.

“Their heroes are people with guns ... gang members, or criminals, and that only breeds more criminalisation.”

Cabrera says the situation is worse in the country’s south, where politicians, businessmen and other powerbrokers stockpile weapons for use by their private armies. The armies are used to carrying out the wishes of their bosses; legal or otherwise. And again, it’s these people with guns, says Cabrera, who become the role models for the young.

This entrenched gun culture has created an environment where the murder rate in the Philippines per capita is three times that of the United States. It has become a country where the frequency of armed robberies has made it a norm for malls, hotels or other business establishments, to employ armed guards.

Cabrera calls the situation a “shameful crisis”.

It cannot change overnight, it will take time, but we are trying our best. We have agreed, and have admitted there were faults and we are trying to correct them. We need the cooperation of the public, and together we can make the difference.

Superintendent Louie Oppus, chief of the police's firearms division

With the high rate of crime, he and other peace advocates have called on the government to enact a total ban on gun ownership, along with making the possession of illegal firearms a major crime punishable with a 20-year jail sentence.

The new law raised the maximum jail sentence for being found with illegal firearms from six to 12 years, but still allows arrested suspects to get out on bail. A 20-year sentence would prevent courts from granting bail.

But with the popularity that guns still hold in the Philippine culture, and with Aquino known to be against a total ban, such calls likely will not amount to much. The onus therefore lies heavily on police to make the streets safer.

But as we learned, the force is sometimes complicit in aiding the illegal trade in guns. In interviews with weapons dealers in Tondo, and gun makers in various parts of the Philippines, we heard how police often had a direct hand in buying or selling illicit arms.

Superintendent Oppus, while showing us the warehouse where authorities keep seized weapons, admits that in the past, firearms from here would disappear, and are believed to have been sold on the black market.

But in acknowledging the issues of corruption facing the force, the chief of the firearms division stresses police are trying to change. Within weeks of being installed in his post last September, Oppus says he fired “16 members” of his department.

He also says a concerted effort is being made to clean up “all departments” of the national police.

“It cannot change overnight, it will take time, but we are trying our best. We have agreed, and have admitted there were faults and we are trying to correct them. We need the cooperation of the public, and together we can make the difference.”

But whether change happens fast enough is another issue. In our time filming Stray Bullets, we met several families who had recently lost loved ones from gun violence. They told us police were often unwilling or unable to help.

We also met many armed criminals, who told us authorities have such little respect and influence in their neighbourhoods, that the new gun laws would not amount to much.

Despite this “get-tough-law”, no one in public we spoke to believed there would be any fewer firearms on the streets, nor did they believe there would be fewer gun-related killings anytime soon.

In Pictures:

 

101 East  airs each week at the following times GMT: Thursday: 2230; Friday: 0930; Saturday: 0330; Sunday: 1630.  

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Source:
Al Jazeera
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