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MANILA, Philippines – The Ella family never thought the fireworks display and merriment on New Year’s Eve would bring them so much pain with the loss of their daughter, 7-year-old Stephanie Nicole.
On New Year’s Eve, Stephanie Nicole was hit by a stray bullet while watching fireworks outside her home in Caloocan. She died two days after.
A few days later, on January 4, Ronald Bae alias “Bossing” went on a drug-induced shooting rampage with his semi-automatic pistol in Kawit, Cavite. He killed 9 people including two children and himself.
While the police has arrested Bae’s accomplice, John Paul, who reloaded his gun, the local government of Cavite is on the hunt for the other accomplice who fled after the incident.
The killings, which happened before a 6-month gun ban was imposed to mark the start of the election period, not only triggered widespread calls for government to prohibit the use of weapons across the country for good.
It also put the industry that made the killings possible on the spotlight.
The Philippine gun industry is relatively small, but players claim their products are “world-class.”
According to www.gunpolicy.org, a site hosted by the University of Sydney’s School of Public Health in Australia, there are about 3.9 million guns — legal and illegal — held by civilians in the Philippines, 4.7% of the population.
Ownership of guns among Filipino private citizens is also low compared to high-income countries like the United States, where there are 270 million privately-owned guns.
But in the ASEAN, the Philippines is ranked 2nd in terms of the actual number of privately-owned guns.
The website states that the Philippines ranks 20th worldwide in terms of the number of privately-owned guns. It is second only to Thailand in the ASEAN, placed 11th globally with as much as 10 million private owned firearms.
In terms of gun ownership % or the rate of private gun ownership, the Philippines is ranked 105 worldwide. The United States ranked 1st globally with 88.8 gun owners per 100 population.
Among ASEAN-member countries, Thailand had the most guns at 15.6% of the population.
The industry, a thriving but mostly “backyard” one, fears a complete gun ban would affect its revenues. Licensed gun owners mostly include members of the police or military, professionals such as doctors and lawyers, and sports enthusiasts who join regular gun metes.
Dino Rodriguez, director of Association of Firearms and Ammunition Dealers of the Philippines Inc. (AFAD), said a majority of commercial gun buyers in the country buy for self-defense, only a minority buy for sport, and a negligible portion buy to collect. He said gun collectors in the country are a rare breed and only the ones who have a lot of disposable income can afford this.
A small portion of the total guns they manufacture are sold through orders like those from the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), one of their clients.
Big orders, or around 50,000 or more guns and/or ammunition of the military and the police for arms and ammunition, usually come every 10 years. Last year, Rodriguez said the Philippine National Police (PNP) ordered 60,000 Glocks from a local company.
“About 80% own one gun and the rest own more than one with just a very few who own 10, which is the maximum,” Rodriguez said.
The gun industry is relatively small, with about 600 to 700 players composed of manufacturers, dealers, and importers – including those who act in all 3 capacities. This does not include about 100 shooting ranges that often double as dealers for arms and ammunition.
It is dominated by Armscor, Metro Arms and Shooters.
Armscor Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer George Chua told Rappler in a phone interview that in recent years, their company manufactured an average of 100,000 firearms a year.
Chua said at least 60% of these products are sent abroad as exports to 60 countries worldwide, including the United States. He added that Armscor also manufactures ammunition and exports it to countries like Thailand.
He added that the Philippines is still a small player in the international firearms market since many manufacturers abroad make millions of firearms every year.
Rodriguez said one of the Philippine-made guns is branded American Classic. Each gun retails for $564 to $796 or P22,560 to P30,560 per unit.
Philippine manufacturers mainly export pistols to countries like the United States but there are some companies like Armscor which manufacture .22 caliber rifles for export. The high-powered 5.56 rifles and higher are not manufactured in the country.
Data from the United Nations showed the country booked export earnings worth a total of P5.72 billion in shipments of arms and ammunition between 1996 and 2011.
In terms of imports, the UN said the Philippines paid P7.84 billion for the same during the 15 year period. The UN estimated that the country sold around 42.56 million firearms, ammunition, projectiles, and parts abroad.
The official data from the National Statistics Office (NSO) showed that the country’s exports of firearms and ammunition – sans swords, and other similar items – amounted to $918,270 or P36.73 million in the 2007 to 2011 period.
Import payments, on the other hand, amounted $5.45 million or P218.02 million in the same 5-year period.
In the January to October 2012 period, the NSO said the Philippines’ exports amounted to $84,595 or P3.38 million while imports reached $1.14 million or $45.64 million.
Unknown to many, the local gun industry is considered one of the best in the world. Rodriguez said the Philippines is atleast in the top 5 of the best gunmakers worldwide.
Rodriguez said all three major gun manufacturers have made their mark in producing excellent guns for commercial use in the United States, Europe, Australia, and Thailand.
“If you read reviews of Americans on firearms that come from the Philippines, bilib na bilib sila, such craftsmanship,” Rodriguez, also the President of Defensive Armament Resource Corp., told Rappler in an interview.
“I think I can say with certainty that we are one of the preferred gun manufacturers in the world.”
Rodriguez said the many revolutions that helped build the Republic of the Philippines was one of the reasons why Filipinos are so apt at making quality arms and ammunition.
He said the resourcefulness and craftsmanship exhibited by Filipinos in making guns has given it an edge in the international market. Rodriguez said it also helped that labor costs in the country are low compared to other countries.
Rodriguez added that one of the things that has made the country famous in the international firearms and ammunition market is being the impetus for the creation of the .45 caliber pistol.
He shared that the Americans were forced to make bigger rounds because their .38 caliber rifles back then couldn’t kill the Moros at the time they were colonizing the Philippines.
“The .45 caliber bullet was developed by the Americans to defeat the Moro insurgents during the occupation. What they would do in the south, itatali nila yung mga parts ng body nila [at strategic areas] para pag tinamaan sila ng bala, hindi sill mag-bi-bleed out. So the Americans, they carried .38 caliber revolvers, they would shoot the Moros but they could not kill them. So they had to develop a bigger round to stop Filipinos,” Rodriguez explained. The Colt 1911, he added, is still the most popular gun in the Philippines.
The skill of Filipinos in making quality guns and ammunition also serves as a double-edged sword. Just like any trade like driving, gun making can also be passed on to the children of gunsmiths.
This has given rise to a thriving backyard industry. One of the most popular is located in Danao, Cebu, which has been featured in several articles and even documentaries about gun making in the country.
Rodriguez said this is one of the reasons why so many crimes involve loose firearms in the Philippines. He said that as much as 99.6% of firearms used in crime do not have licenses.
“Typical knee-jerk reaction, when you see somebody shoot someone, yung mga gun owners yan. But if you look at the statistics, 99.6% of the guns used in crimes are unlicensed firearms,” he said.
Life with gun bans
With the election ban in place, the gun industry expects a slight dip in its revenues this year with some affected more than the others like the shooting ranges.
Armscor Shooting Ranges Inc. Executive Vice President and General Manager Bob S. Sajot admitted that election years are usually break-even years for shooting ranges mainly because election gun bans do not allow the transport of firearms.
Sajot said 99% of their clients bring their own guns to the range. The remaining 1% is composed mostly of tourists who come here to practice shoot and gun enthusiasts who do not have a gun of their own.
He said that the Philippines is actually attracts many gun enthusiasts from other countries such as Hong Kong, Taiwan, Germany, and Japan where there is a total gun ban. Sajot said that based on the experience of their branch in Makati City, gun tourism account for 30% of the branch revenues.
To cope, Sajot said shooting ranges offer shooting clinics as well as temporary storage facilities for those who own more than one gun. He said only around 5% to 10% of their clients will take up this offer, since majority would prefer to keep their own guns at home.
These clients can have access to their guns at the range and be able to continue shooting, which is important especially in some gun clubs who give credit to their members who participate in gun shoots and competitions.
“You can still walk in, rent a firearm, buy ammo, and shoot. But this is regulated, you have to show identification, etc. You don’t even need to own a gun and you will be assisted by range officers, you will be taught, and we have tourist packages too,” he added.
Chua, on the other hand, said the manufacturing side will only shift its production focus to addressing the demand abroad. However, this will still require some reduction in its personnel which, at full capacity, could reach 1,400 workers.
He said that if the country would resort to a full gun ban, however, things will be more different and could cost the Philippines its defense industry. Some of them, Chua said, could look elsewhere to operate.
Chua stressed that imposing a total gun ban is not an assurance that no one will be killed or murdered. He added that it is also ironic that Connecticut, where 20 children were shot dead in December, had one of the strictest gun regulations in the United States.
“Those who advocate for that [a gun ban] are totally misinformed. We need to remove the criminal, not the guns,” Chua said. – Rappler.com