The Philippines: Gun culture is deep-rooted

PHILIPPINES - Visitors to the Philippines often do a double take at the signs outside restaurants, shops and office buildings requesting that firearms be deposited before entering.

It is a vivid reflection of this country's deep-rooted gun culture.

Although there is no constitutional right to bear arms, civilians may own firearms, and even assault rifles.

There are 1.2 million registered firearms in the Philippines and 600,000 more with expired licences, according to police data.

Unregistered firearms in the hands of the public, criminals and insurgents add considerably to the quantity of illegal firearms.

Buying a firearm legally in the Philippines is not a breeze. Applicants for a firearm licence must be over 21 and employed, attend a gun safety course, have no criminal record and undergo an arduous process of documentation.

A tougher new gun control law takes effect next month. Among its provisions are that gun owners must renew their licences every two years and a maximum penalty of life imprisonment for having three or more unregistered light weapons, such as an assault rifle.

For those unable to obtain a licence, there is a well-established trade in illegal firearms made by backyard gunsmiths; the more sophisticated ones are knock-offs of brand-name firearms. A .45-calibre hand gun reportedly sells for around S$300.

Latest United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime data shows the country's homicide rate was 5.4 per 100,000 population in 2009, the same as Thailand's.

Both had the second highest homicide rate in ASEAN after Myanmar, which had a rate of 10.2 in 2008.

Despite a high level of gun ownership, most Filipinos seem to favour tougher gun control.

A recent survey by pollster Pulse Asia found that 67 per cent of respondents blamed the proliferation of firearms as a major cause of crime and violence, and 78 per cent favoured allowing only law enforcers and licensed security guards to carry guns in public.

Calls for tougher gun controls and outright bans follow high-profile shootings. This was seen after sacked policeman Rolando Mendoza gunned down eight tourists from Hong Kong during a bus siege in Manila in August 2010.

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