Tue, Jul 08, 2003 - Page 5 News List

Gun debate heats up as Arroyo targets owners

AFP , MANILA

Firearms owners in the Philippines are fighting efforts by the government and private groups to curb gun ownership.

A lawsuit on the right to bear arms has been filed by a prominent gun enthusiast, and groups defending the right to own guns are recruiting members to counter rival bodies seeking to restrict the number of guns in private hands.

Ironically, the campaign for the right to own guns gained strength when President Gloria Arroyo in January issued an order banning civilians from carrying their weapons outside of their homes.

The order effectively revoked hundreds of permits to carry firearms that the Interior Department had already issued to private citizens who said they needed guns for self-protection or professional reasons.

Holders of such permits had each paid as much as 7,000 pesos (US$131) in fees to get them. Arroyo's order did not offer any refund.

In an unprecedented move, the firearms rights group, Peaceful Responsible Owners of Guns (Pro-Gun), held a large rally to show its outrage.

"It was really rough for us. Some people had just been issued a permit on the same day that they came out with the order" cancelling the permits, said Pro-Gun secretary general Andy Apostol.

Pro-Gun president Mike Melchor said some 12,000 people were affected by the order.

Officials then appeared to backtrack, saying the firearms permits were only being reviewed to strengthen safeguards and weed out unqualified people.

New permits to carry firearms will be issued and those who paid for their old permits will have the balance of their fees taken into account, the department has said.

Pro-Gun argues that the crackdown on guns mainly affects the licensed owners of firearms and does nothing about the unlicensed guns in the hands of criminals, communist insurgents and Muslim separatists.

Frank Chavez, a former chief government lawyer, filed a petition with the Supreme Court to have Arroyo's order suspended on the grounds that it was unconstitutional.

Carlo Ybanez, a lawyer who helped draft Chavez's petition, conceded that Filipinos, unlike Americans, do not have the right to bear arms enshrined in their Constitution.

"But we can argue that we have the right to carry arms because it is intertwined to our rights to protect life, especially here in the Philippines where we all know that the police cannot protect the citizens," he said.

Officials said 800,000 firearms licenses had been issued this year to civilians and government officials.

Another 328,000 firearms are believed held by civilians without police authorization.

This does not include the guns in the hands of rebel groups like the communist New People's Army and the Muslim separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front.

Many Filipinos feel they must carry guns to protect themselves, especially in rural areas where rebels and bandit gangs are active in extortion and kidnapping for ransom.

Oscar Tan, president of a grocery store owners' association in the southern city of Cotabato, said "It would be very difficult for us traders who are easy targets of kidnappings to roam around" after Arroyo's order.

However Nandy Pacheco, president of the Gun-less Society, a group advocating firearms control, says the public would be safer if fewer people were allowed to carry guns in public.

Pacheco said Filipinos often showed off their masculinity by flaunting their guns and used them even over trivial matters.

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