Sun, Aug 05, 2012 - Page 14 News List

Illegal gunsmiths eye Philippine election season

By Manuel Mogato  /  Reuters, MANDAUE CITY, Philippines

In the Philippines, they vote with their trigger fingers. Elections mean big business for illegal gunsmiths, who are looking forward to next year’s mid-term 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 northeast 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 called only Remo, as he hammered away at bits of scrap metal in a makeshift factory in Danao.

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

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

That puts the Philippines in 105th place on a list of 179 countries, tiny in comparison to the 88.8 per 100 in the US 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 when compared with Central and South American weapons hotspots like Guatemala, Honduras and Colombia.

Despite that, the Philippines suffers from 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 US, 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 caliber machine guns.

In the 2004 elections, authorities decided to crack down on illegal gunsmiths in Cebuand closed down the Genzon family’s home factory on the edge of a rice field.

Like other gunsmiths from his hometown, he was soon working at the government-registered Shooters’ Arms Manufacturing factory about 25km away in Mandaue City.

A small army of about 400 workers assembles revolvers and pistols at the Mandaue factory, which exports guns to the US, Australia, Italy and Thailand.

Factory owner Romulo de Leon III, a second-generation gun dealer, quickly recognized the unusual skills developed by the illegal, backyard gunsmiths when he decided to switch from selling imported weapons to making his own.

His partly automated factory now produces about 20,000 guns a year, with up to 85 percent of them sold abroad, making him the second-largest gun manufacturer in the Philippines.

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