Gunslingers' paradise

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 01 July, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 01 July, 2004, 12:00am

Two weeks ago, two young men and their bodyguards had a 10-minute gunbattle in a parking lot in the heart of the city. Although several cars were shot up and police recovered at least 60 spent shells for assault rifles and pistols, no witness has come forward. Amazingly, only one man was hurt, but he turned out to be the 30-year-old son of Senator Robert Jaworski, an ally of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. Jaworski junior was discovered to have 11 firearms, 10 of them with expired licences. His opponent was the 14-year old son of a wealthy businessman.

Firepower is a way of life in the Philippines. Every establishment that can afford to has armed security guards. Many people keep guns in the glove compartments of their cars.

If you are new to the Philippines, chances are you will be shocked by your first visit to any bank. You will wonder why the guards are carrying shotguns and assault rifles. Only when you have stayed here long enough will you figure out the correct answer: because the bank robbers have grenade launchers.

There are supposed to be strict laws that require permits, limit the number and type of weapons that can be bought, and forbid civilians taking firearms outside the house. But reality mocks those laws. The country may have as many as 2 million unregistered guns.

Firearms are so common that they are even used to make political statements. Every recent increase in the price of oil has been greeted by masked raiders in speeding cars, firing grenades at an oil firm's headquarters right in Manila's business district. (In last month's attack, the gunmen did not know the oil company had moved: the grenades blasted against the walls of a surprised cosmetics firm. Perhaps that firm could paint a huge sign - in lipstick, I imagine - with an arrow saying 'oil firm this way'.)

In other countries, a proliferation of weapons would create an atmosphere of oppressive menace. But in the Philippines, assassinations, murders and robberies have not sparked any popular outrage or backlash at all.

One reason is that many Filipinos simply like guns. They give them a sense of self-importance and power. And anyone with wealth and the right connections can disregard the gun laws.

The two parking lot gunslingers have been charged with alarm and scandal, public mischief and illegal discharge of firearms - instead of the much more serious illegal possession of firearms. President Arroyo, who just last year presided noisily and proudly over the burning of 1,000 illegal firearms, was conspicuously quiet about the shootout. Perhaps she was busy rehearsing a speech about the strong republic she is building.