Impunity of lawlessness

Impunity of lawlessness

Manila : Philippines | Jan 24, 2013 at 2:46 PM PST
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By Perry Diaz

Once again, gun violence has taken center stage in public opinion. I’m not talking about gun violence in the United States but halfway around the world in the land of the morning sun – the Philippines. The recent killing of 13 people under questionable circumstances in Atimonan in the province of Quezon has ignited a firestorm of controversy on gun control legislation. Many people believe that the time has come for a permanent gun ban, not just the 150-day ban that takes effect every election time.

This year, as mandated by law, the Commission on Elections (Comelec) enforced a gun ban from January 13 through June 12 to prevent gun violence during the campaign for the May 13 mid-term elections. However, it is debatable whether a “gun ban” is really effective in stopping or mitigating gun violence during election seasons.

Take for instance the worst election-related violence occurred in November 2009 in the province of Maguindanao when 58 people – including 32 media workers – were massacred allegedly masterminded by the powerful Ampatuan political dynasty in the region. Although the heinous mass murder occurred before the gun ban took effect, it would be unimaginable to disarm the Ampatuan’s private army.

Private armies

Last November, it was reported that the Philippine National Police (PNP) identified about 60 suspected “private armies” that could cause problems in the upcoming mid-term elections. According to PNP, these “private armed groups” as they’re officially referred to, “consist of government-supported militiamen, insurgents, rogue police or soldiers or armed thugs who do the bidding of politicians to help them stay in power.”

It’s interesting to note that a previous police study conducted in 2010 showed that there were 112 “private armed groups” ranging from a handful of men to hundreds in numbers. Does this mean that more than 50 of these groups were disarmed in the past two years? The police said that some of these groups broke up while others voluntarily disbanded. But did they surrender their weapons to the police?

Dismantling these private armies was one of President Benigno “P-Noy” Aquino III’s reform goals when he was elected in 2010. And if indeed more than half of them were broken up, then that’s a commendable achievement. Or could it be possible that these political dynasties were doing a better job of keeping their “private armies” out of police sight and hiding their arsenals of weapons?

In a culture where politicians who are better armed win elections, dismantling one’s private army is tantamount to capitulation or surrender. And that’s not going to happen without a fight. With more than half a million unlicensed firearms in the hands of civilians, violence is bound to happen despite the Comelec’s 150-day gun ban. That’s why the PNP has to mobilize its 140,000-strong police force on “high alert” on Election Day.

A key element of the Comelec’s gun ban is the suspension of all permits to carry firearms in public areas. Exempted from the gun ban are top officials, on-duty troops and police officers, and people who are facing threats. Violators could be sentenced to six years in jail.

But a few days before the gun ban took effect, P-Noy applied for a personal exemption before the Comelec. Several senators and congressmen did the same, which is understandable because they are on the campaign trail. But P-Noy is not running for any office. And if he campaigns for his party’s senatorial and congressional candidates, he is protected by a phalanx of heavily armed bodyguards. Besides, I don’t recall any instance when a sitting president carried a gun when traveling. Simply put, a gun-toting president doesn’t project a positive image of someone who leads by example.

Total gun ban

In the aftermath of the Atimonan massacre, calls for the imposition of total gun ban are gaining momentum. But guess who was one of the first to step forward to signify his opposition to total gun ban in the country? P-Noy.

P-Noy was reported to have cited some areas in the United States where there “were marked drops in criminal incidents in places where certain states liberalized the ‘concealed carrying weapon permits’ while crimes in areas that tightened their gun measures went up.” But what P-Noy failed to mention is that the U.S. has the highest per capita rate of firearm-related murders of all developed countries.

According to data compiled by the United Nations, the U.S. has four times as many gun-related homicides per capita as do Turkey and Switzerland, which are tied for third. The U.S. gun murder rate is about 20 times the average for all other developed countries. That means that Americans are 20 times as likely to be killed by a gun than is someone from another developed country. (Source: The Washington Post, Dec. 14, 2012)

Wind of change

But things are about to change in America. After the Newtown, Connecticut mass murder of 20 children and six adults at the Sandy Hook elementary school, there is a clamor to ban the sale of military style assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines.

Last January 15, a month and a day after the gruesome Sandy Hook massacre, the state of New York passed the toughest gun control law in the United States. Other states are now following the lead of New York. Finally, a national movement for gun control is growing.

The following day, January 16, President Barack Obama unveiled a package of gun control proposals. These proposals were the results of the study made by a task force panel led by Biden whom Obama assigned to develop proposals to deal with gun control in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook massacre.

With Biden behind him, Obama laid out his plan, which includes a call on Congress to renew a ban on military style assault-weapons sales that expired in 2004, a requirement for criminal background checks on all gun purchases, a 10-round limit on magazines, closing a loophole for gun show sales, and a new federal gun trafficking law, which has been sought by big-city mayors to keep out-of-state firearms off their streets.

Gun culture

In so many ways, the gun cultures in the United States and the Philippines have strong similarities. American and Filipino men love guns. With the proliferation of firearms in the two countries, gun violence in America and the Philippines has become a pandemic… a disease, a cancer. It should therefore be treated like a disease. The cancer must be surgically removed lest it would spread further.

While total gun ban in the Philippines might not be doable at this time, there are so many ways that gun violence can be reduced. And this is where presidential leadership is needed. And like Obama, P-Noy must take the bull my its horns and directly deal with the problems of gun violence.

At the end of the day, gun violence can only lead to one thing… lawlessness. And when there is impunity of lawlessness, then we are no different from Somalia.


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Atimonan Massacre
Vehicle of victims of Atimonan massacre.
perrydiaz is based in Sacramento, California, United States of America, and is an Anchor on Allvoices.
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