The Philippines' Dangerous Love Affair With Guns
Why do so many Filipinos own and carry weapons? One theory points to the influence of former American colonial rulers.
MANILA — Inside this shooting range, located in the basement of a Manila shopping mall, pistols are loaded, triggers are cocked and shots are fired at paper targets 10 meters away.
The Philippines has one of the highest rates of gun ownership in Asia.
Around 1.5 million Filipinos are licensed firearm carriers. But a high rate of violent crime indicates that many illegal weapons fall into the wrong hands. There are more than 8,000 homicides each year in the country, according to recent statistics from the United Nations.
But many Filipinos see gun ownership as a cultural and historical right. "It's widespread, and it's national," says Reynaldo Pacheco. "Everyone will tell you that. Every Tom, Dick and Harry can buy a gun. You can get one easily."
Pacheco, who goes by his nickname Nandy, is perhaps the country's most outspoken critic of the Philippine gun culture. Very few activists have tried to take on the arms industry and the pro-gun culture and government.
He invited me to his countryside home just outside the capital. Walking past the flock of chickens by the front door, I enter his spacious dining room. There's a statue of the Virgin Mary in the corner, and atop the upright piano is a picture of Nandy, his wife and their four grown children.
After a long career as a lawyer and working for the United Nations, he founded the advocacy group Gunless Society 25 years ago. In 1998, he was a vice presidential candidate who ran on a gun-reform platform but lost.
Today, at 82, he's not slowing down, and is eager to recount for me one of his earliest memories of gun violence. It was 1942 and the Japanese military had just invaded the Philippines. He, his family, his neighbors, as well as American and local soldiers were forced at gunpoint to leave their homes in what became known as the Bataan Death March.
"On the left side of the road were the soldiers, the Americans and the Filipinos," he recalls. "On the right side were the civilians. The Filipino soldier would make a sign to us, prepare the civilian clothes, and they would transfer to our side. Some succeeded, but others when they were seen by a Japanese solider, the soldier shot him."
A Yankee legacy
Pacheco says that experience may have been what inspired him to hate guns. But to know why so many other Filipinos love their weapons, he says all you have to do is look at one of his country's former colonial rulers.
"We got it from the Americans," he says. "We learned many good things from the Americans, but what we learned most was this addiction to violence, to guns."
Pacheco says it hasn't been easy trying to persuade lawmakers to see things his way. "The biggest stumbling block here is the politicians. When public officials carry guns with bodyguards, they give the wrong impression. It becomes a status symbol. I cannot understand the people, how can they keep voting for these people."
Ernesto Tabujara says that the Philippines can be dangerous, which he argues is why people need their guns, to protect themselves. He heads the lobby group Peaceful Responsible Owners of Guns, or PRO Gun, and has taken on Pacheco in debates over gun culture here.
"First of all, I dispute the fact that there is a direct correlation between the crime rate and gun ownership," Tabujara says. "In the Philippines, the crime rate is not because of gun ownership. Actually, it's because of the inability of law enforcement to counter or arrest all these criminals and terrorists who are operating in our country."
Last year, a new law came into effect that aimed to reduce gun violence. But it actually expanded the list of people who could own multiple firearms.
The only recent lull in violence was when Pope Francis visited the Philippines in January.
The pontiff didn't address the country's rate of violent crime during his mass, but every word he said was closely followed by many of the country's 76 million Roman Catholics.
But Nandy Pacheco, a devout Catholic himself, says Filipinos aren't really listening to the Pope's messages of peace. "This country has become a country of hypocrites. There's no love, there's no truth, no justice, no reconciliation. It's full of violence."
Despite what seems at times to be a losing battle, Pacheco still has some fight left in him.
He's behind legislation that would outlaw carrying firearms in public altogether, though he's not necessarily confident about its fate. "Even if it doesn't become law in my lifetime," he says, "success would be measured but faithfulness, my faithfulness to the cause. That is what matters."