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MANILA, Philippines - At 6 pm on January 3, shortly before Stephanie Nicole Ella's remains came home to Bgy Malaria, Caloocan, authorities invited 4 trigger-happy men in the neighborhood for questioning.
Juan Agus, 52, a former Army reservist who currently works as a controller in a water company, told Rappler he has owned a licensed caliber .45 pistol since 2002.
Agus denied firing his gun during the New Year revelry but he admitted his 3 friends did, while they were drinking a street away from the alley where Nicole, other kids, and her relatives were watching the fireworks.
Feliciano Cercano Jr, a 43-year-old worker, told Rappler he shot a gun but it did not discharge. Eddie Magtubo, 42, also a worker, said he fired it twice. Arcadio Gulmatico Jr, 40, a bgy tanod (local volunteer), claimed he did only once.
The Philippine National Police said there are 242 registered guns in the vicinity of Nicole's home, but they are focusing their investigation on only 45 gun owners based on the type of bullet recovered from her body.
Agus and his friends claimed they aimed the firearm downwards, suggesting they could not have hit Nicole.
On Thursday night, January 3, the police Scene Of the Crime Operatives (SOCO) conducted paraffin tests on the 4 men and did a ballistic examination of the caliber 45 pistol they took turns shooting.
They will be charged with illegal discharge of a firearm, authorities said.
The 4 men are among the nearly 18 people who were arrested by the police for allegedly firing their guns during the typically rowdy New Year celebrations in the country.
As of Thursday, January 3, the injury toll reached 41, the police reported -- way higher than the count of the Department of Health (DOH) which pegged it at only 22.
Last year, the DOH documented at least 29 injuries caused by indiscriminate shooting during celebrations.
Guns in the Philippines
Facing possible additional charges for negligence for being the pistol owner, Agus said he's learning a lesson the hard way.
"Aral ito sa paghawak ng baril (This taught me a lesson as a gun holder)," Agus told Rappler.
Gun ownership and regulation in the country are facing intense scrutiny from a public angered and alarmed over the cases of gun-related violence that doused the New Year euphoria and claimed the life of unsuspecting kids.
"Huwag pong palampasin ang may kagagawan nito kasi kung taon-taon na lang po na malaya siyang makagawa ng (pagka-iresponsable), marami pa pong Nicole, marami pa pong bata na walang kamuwang-muwang sa mundo ang nanakawan ng buhay, ng pag-asa at pangarap," Ella's aunt, Mercedita said, addressing the Aquino government.
(Don't let the perpetrator go scot-free because if we condone his irresponsible act, many other Nicoles, other unsuspecting kids, will be robbed of their life, hope, and future.)
"What are the authorities doing to track and punish the irresponsible gun owners? Just how poor is our ballistic identification system? Was there ever a case of justice being served to the victims? It should be reported, too, to give gun owners a lesson," a commenter said, reacting to a related Rappler article.
"NBI [National Bureau of Investigation], improve on your gun registration so that every gun in the Philippines has a record: legal or illegal. If you have to scour every nook and cranny of the country to find guns, then do it. Let this kind of incident end here and now," Kevin Emmanuel Haber posted a comment on a related Rappler article.
PNP records show there are 1.6 million licensed firearms in the Philippines. A third of all licensed guns belong to the military and police.
Police also estimated there are nearly 600,000 loose or unregistered firearms.
Geneva-based Small Arms Survey figures indicated that the number of guns in circulation - licensed and loose - may be much higher, up to 5 million guns.
GunPolicy.org, an international bulletin of firearm injury prevention, described the country's gun regulation as restrictive as gun applicants are required to "provide the licensing authority with evidence of good character and have a valid reason why he needs the firearm."
For Caloocan Chief Police Inspector Ronald Perilla, the problem is not policy but the attitude of gun owners. He maintained that the police did their best in preventing casualties during the holidays, citing measures like checkpoints and deployment of police to barangays.
"Hindi masasabiing failure kasi iisa lang naman ang pangyayari na yan eh. Kita mo naman na bumaba ang pagpapaputok at natamaan ng bala. Ang point nga nito, talagang may kababayan tayong hindi mapagsabihan at matitigas ang ulo," Perilla said. (We can't say it's a failure because it's a single incident. You see that the number of those who shot firearms and were hit dropped. The point is we really have people who can't be told what to do and who are hard-headed.)
At the national level, before their holiday campaign, the police claimed they made headway in their gun control efforts.
The PNP Directorate for Operations earlier reported that the police confiscated at least 4,976 loose firearms between January and October 2012, a 69% improvement from a similar campaign in 2011.
To achieve this, the police said they conducted 1,914 Oplan "Bakal"/Oplan "Sita" operations, 80 internal security operations, 330 search warrant operations, and 476 checkpoint operations that also resulted in the arrests of 2,847 gun law violators.
The police also reported there are still about 600,000 unregistered guns that should be accounted for but gave assurances they will also address the backlog.
Authorities said most of the guns used in committing crimes were unregistered firearms.
Politicians who trooped to Ella's wake on Thursday, January 3, jumped on the gun control bandwagon.
"Pumapayag na rin ako na pagdating ng New Year, siguro gumawa na lang ng ordinansa, o ng memo ang DILG, o ng batas na gun ban na lang muna siguro para mapanatiling tahimik ang ating lugar. Kung di man gagawa na lang kami ng ordinansa sa Caloocan," Caloocan Councilor Ricojudge (RJ) Echiverri told reporters. (I agree that the DILG should issue an ordinance or a memo or a law should be passed declaring a gun ban during the New Year celebration to maintain peace in our area. Otherwise, we will just pass an ordinance in Caloocan.)
Vice President Jejomar Binay also favored the proposed gun ban but stressed the problem is law enforcement.
"Umpisahan natin yung implementation. Yung enforcement, that will lead to the ban kasi, in the first place, maraming unlicensed firearms. (Let's start with the implementation of the law. Enforcement will lead to gun ban because in the first place there are many unlicensed firearms)," Binay said.
Not a priority
For Malacañang, Nicole's death "puts the burden on all of us to make certain that this tragedy is not repeated," the Office of the Presidential Spokesperson (OPS) earlier said.
Will President Benigno Aquino III go as far as changing the gun policy terrain? In an earlier interview with Reuters, Aquino was quoted as saying it is "not a priority right now."
But Malacañang's tone seems to have changed after the New Year shooting incidents sparked public outcry. On Friday, January 4, Deputy Presidential Spokesperson Abigail Valte said the proposals for tighter gun control will be raised with the President, a known gun enthusiast.
“Both will have to be discussed with the President given the way that commentaries have been going because of the recent incidents. This is something that we will have to discuss with the President,” Valte said.
With the alarming incidents of gun-related violence, revisiting the country's gun control policy and strengthening measures that will prevent senseless deaths like Nicole's from happening again are becoming a pressing need. - Rappler.com