Bespectacled and clean-shaven, 37-year-old Jomari Paraas could pass for a typical office employee in the Philippines, except for the six guns he has in his backpack that he will soon sell.
The father of two is a prolific player in the country’s enormous and lucrative weapons black market, which has been under scrutiny following a spate of high-profile massacres and shoot-outs this year.
“Why do I trade guns? Because there is a demand for it and it’s extra income,” said Paraas, a former communist guerrilla whose day job as a community organizer for a non-governmental organization is not enough to pay his bills.
Speaking to foreign media in a crowded Manila slum where he was planning to sell the six guns, Paraas said he had been a firearms trader for more than a decade, starting in his late 20s when he quit the rebel movement.
For security reasons, “Paraas” is a made-up name, but his real identity has been vetted by a Philippine expert on security issues who advises local law enforcement officials on the gun trade.
Paraas started selling used guns and knock-offs of foreign brands made by illegal gunsmiths in the central and southern Philippines, before moving to more expensive weapons smuggled from abroad.
The US-made .22 caliber Magnum Black Widow revolvers in his bag were ordered by a buyer through a shadowy network of small-time gun runners who take advantage of the city’s urban squalor to peddle their wares.
Their clients range from security-conscious housewives, to slum dwellers and members of “private armies” employed by political warlords.
“They are light and easy to move, and in demand from many people because they primarily use it for self-defense,” Paraas said of the revolvers, which he sells for 5,000 Philippine pesos (US$120) each. “Higher caliber guns and automatic rifles can also be bought, at a higher price.”
The proliferation of firearms in the Philippines has been in the spotlight since January, following a series of shooting-related deaths, including of two children hit by stray bullets on New Year’s Eve.
A drugs-crazed gunman also killed seven people in a slum rampage and a shoot-out linked to a gambling turf war left 13 dead, among them corrupt police and military officers.
The Philippines has a strong gun culture dating back centuries, with a history of armed struggle against Spanish and US colonial rulers. Today, people typically carry guns because they lack confidence in the country’s security forces to protect the public, security analysts and firearms traders say.
There were 1.2 million registered firearms in the Philippines last year, with another 600,000 unlicensed firearms in circulation, national police data show.
Getting a license to own a conventional gun is easy, subject to police clearance and security checks that include psychological tests, and firearms shops sit alongside clothes outlets in malls. However, getting one without a police clearance can be even easier.
Security analyst Ed Quitoriano, who regularly advises foreign embassies on threat issues, said there could be as many as 4 million unlicensed guns across the country.
The gun culture can be unsettling, particularly for foreign visitors.
Private security guards with loaded, sawn-off shotguns infest the crime-plagued cities, protecting small and large private businesses.