New gun law, Bangsamoro conflict
The recent conflict in Zamboanga City shows that despite the final peace agreement between the Philippine government and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), hundreds of MNLF rebels have not been disarmed. Although thousands of MNLF ex-combatants have been integrated into the Army and police, a significant number have not been demobilized and continue to pose a threat to security and peace.
The State faces a dilemma in light of the crisis. Does anyone honestly expect the new Bangsamoro to extend its politico-military reach to the heavily armed islands of Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi? In the absence of a genuine ceasefire covering other threat groups and in the midst of resilient clan violence in Mindanao, does anyone honestly believe that the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) will agree to lay down its own weapons and demobilize its forces?
Illicit guns galore
The reality is that thousands of illicit weapons are in the hands of rebel combatants, ex-combatants and crime groups in Mindanao. These are accompanied by the hundreds of thousands of illicit weapons kept by civilians.
Yet, in the middle of 2013, the government passed a new gun law that allows even easier access to weapons and the right to carry firearms. The government passed the law while it was negotiating a normalization agreement with the MILF—an agreement that includes the decommissioning of weapons and the demobilization of combatants.
On May 29, with the election-related gun ban still in place, President Aquino signed Republic Act No. 10591, known as the Act Providing for a Comprehensive Law on Firearms and Ammunition and Providing Penalties for Violations Thereof. The law ushers in a new guns regulatory framework that aims to augment the anticrime efforts of law enforcement agencies and stem the proliferation of unregistered firearms.
Taken at face value, the new law should be welcomed in a country where illicit firearms outnumber registered firearms and that has the second highest homicide rate in Asia, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. International Alert UK’s study (2013) of illicit weapons and armed conflict in the Philippines records nearly 2 million illicit firearms in the country in contrast to 930,000 registered ones.
However, the new law contains fatal defects that render it inutile in strengthening government control over the means of violence in the country. The law provides enough loopholes and opportunities for illicit gun manufacturers and traders to evade detection, apprehension and prosecution. Left unaddressed, these weaknesses jeopardize the efforts of government and civil society to tackle the problems associated with illicit weapons possession and proliferation in the Philippines.
In the case of the Philippines, the irony is that with almost 3 million firearms in the hands of citizens, the State is literally outgunned. The enduring presence of several insurgent groups, private armies, feuding clans and violent criminal syndicates attest to the State’s feeble hold over the monopoly of violence.
Privatization of protection
One would therefore expect that the new gun law would shore up the State’s capacity to enforce its will. Instead, the new gun law embodies the vision of a self-help society that is predicated on the privatization of protection. The subtext of this law is the clear message that citizens should henceforth get their own guns to protect themselves.
The law’s warped understanding of maintaining peace and order is apparent in the legal requirements for gun possession. It reiterates a number of provisions that extend the flaws in existing laws—the minimum age of 21 years, passing a psychiatric test, having no criminal record, acquiring a police clearance and a mandatory instruction in gun safety.
These are grossly inadequate in stemming the flow of illicit weapons, as proven by the poor record of enforcement and coordination between law enforcers and other critical agencies of the State. Police records are hardly comprehensive, youth offenders in gun-related crimes persist, psychiatric clearances can be obtained from fly-by-night private clinics and criminal records are seldom cross-checked with all existing court records.
Arming priests, imams
The lawmakers’ callous approach to security is also evident in the legal parameters that enable owners to carry firearms outside their residence or business. The new law states that any person who can prove that his life is under threat can qualify for a permit to carry.
Not just any person though—the law includes a bizarre list that enumerates the following professions that qualify for a permit to carry: lawyers, media persons, accountants, bank cashiers or tellers, priests, ministers, rabbis, imams, physicians, nurses, engineers or businessmen. That’s just about anyone with a profession and public profile in Philippine society.
Equally problematic is the fact that the law’s take on the permit to carry is out of sync with the preferences of Filipino citizens. According to a Pulse Asia survey, 78 percent of respondents would prefer a gun law that allows only law enforcers and licensed private security guards to carry firearms in public places.
One more ‘final’ amnesty
The new law contains a “final” amnesty for those in possession of unregistered firearms. The fundamental problem with a gun amnesty is that it does nothing in terms of actually reducing the number of illicit firearms in the Philippines. None of the weapons that were used in previous wars, gathered from the battlefield, captured from criminals or illicitly smuggled into the country have ever been destroyed or decommissioned.
A gun amnesty hastens the spiraling increase in weapons. In the past, gun amnesties offered an easy way out for law enforcers faced with the proliferation of loose firearms. Hence, the idea that this is the final gun amnesty is as credible as a drug addict’s promise to take one final shot before going into rehab.
Small arms, light weapons
One of the more encouraging elements in the new gun law is the provision that license holders can register only small arms (i.e. hand guns, rifle or shotgun), whereas Class “A” light weapons, which include high-powered firearms, such as machine guns and assault rifles, can be acquired and possessed only by law enforcement agencies. This is certainly a sensible attempt to tilt the balance of firepower toward the State.
While ostensibly limiting the use of light weapons to the police and military, a subsequent provision allows those already in legal possession of light weapons to continue owning and getting licenses for these guns indefinitely.
This provision ruins any expectation of a future environment bereft of light weapons in the hands of civilians. By seeking to maintain the status quo, lawmakers have squandered an opportunity to take high-powered firearms out of the hands of private individuals.
Worse, this provision is vulnerable to the practice of antedating permits or the reemergence of illicit weapons as licensed firearms following the repeated amnesties enjoyed by illicit weapons offenders.
The new licensing system enables “warlord politicians” and other paramilitary groups to escape the detection of their arsenals and the destruction of their illicit weapons. They are the sort of provisions that will enable even the MILF to hang on to their weapons.
Normalizing the abnormal
Last we heard the government panel in the PH-MILF peace process was negotiating a weapons decommissioning agreement with the Moro group. Both peace panels readily admit that the decommissioning of MILF forces will be the most difficult.
Not anymore. Now all it takes is for MILF leaders and rebels to morph into qualified security providers, secure “duty detail orders” as a juridical entity, and sustain the continued ownership and use of their weapons.
Besides, what’s the logic behind calling for weapons decommissioning, while enabling other “qualified citizens” and security providers, including those in the Bangsamoro, to amass more “legal” weapons than they previously owned? In the absence of a vigorous campaign to stop the spread of illicit weapons, what is the sense in disarming MILF combatants and reintegrating them into their former communities where everyone else is armed?
Notwithstanding the political importance of disarming rebel forces, the proliferation of loose firearms across Mindanao necessitates a more realistic and therefore flexible approach to the decommissioning of MILF weapons. Yet the new gun law conveys such a lax approach to firearms that the government peace panel will be hard pressed to extract any meaningful concessions from the MILF on the issue of firearms.
However, one thing is now crystal clear. It will be grossly irresponsible for the government to enter into a normalization agreement with the MILF that does not include the significant decommissioning of weapons in the hands of rebel combatants.
The crisis in Zamboanga gives graphic evidence of the dangers that lurk behind the impunity surrounding the private ownership of weapons and a government policy that institutionalizes the private provision of protection.
The new law conveys an ambiguous approach to gun control, resulting from a need to compromise the interests of law enforcement agencies, gun manufacturers, gun dealers, gun enthusiasts and those who advocate a gun ban.
International Alert’s analysis of the illicit gun trade in the Philippines (Inquirer, Jan. 12) offers a stark reminder that the rapid expansion of the weapons market and the persistence of a “shadow gun economy” depend first and foremost on the agents of the law. But given the chance to strengthen its monopoly of violence, the State’s response has been found wanting.
Capture of policymaking
The failure to strengthen gun control laws reveals the capture of strategic policymaking in gun control by private gun owners, private security agencies and ruthless politicians, including retired police chiefs and internal security officials who have transformed themselves into legitimate security providers. The result is a gun control policy that is distorted and skewed, and allows the reverse—a robust market in weapons.
That failure now hounds the government in violent episodes such as the conflict in Zamboanga. These episodes will continue to shape the economy and politics of Muslim Mindanao until the spread of loose firearms is contained and peace processes lead to the genuine demobilization and decommissioning of weapons.
(Ed Quitoriano works as an independent risk and conflict analyst for several development agencies.)