SAN FRANCISCO – Like most Filipino boys, I was fascinated with guns.
Baril-barilan was one of my favorite games. My boyhood friends and I idolized Vic Morrow, the gutsy sergeant in ‘Combat!’ and Clint Eastwood, the no-nonsense cop in ‘Magnum Force.’ And we so wanted to be like the great FPJ, as Fernando Poe Jr. is known. We knew their famous lines by heart, from “Isang bala ka lang!” to “Go ahead, make my day.”
Eventually, these fantasies faded. But the reality of gun violence has not.
Thankfully, my exposure to gun violence has been limited, although my experiences do speak to the different realities in the Philippines and the US.
The first time I fired a gun was when I covered a press conference of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in Maguindanao in 1986. During a light moment after the event, I casually mentioned that I had never fired a gun and the rebels, to my surprise, offered to let me try. While the rebels and my fellow reporters watched with amusement, I fired one shot into an open field.
And that was that.
The first time I was threatened with a gun was nearly 20 years later when I was mugged in broad daylight in the Bay Area city of Richmond. A young man pointed a pistol at me and asked for my wallet. He wasn’t angry or verbally abusive. In fact, I sensed he was uneasy and nervous and didn’t really relish what he was doing. I gave him my wallet. He walked away.
And that was that.
Neither incident reignited my boyhood fascination with guns.
Firing one didn’t give me the sense of power and excitement that apparently many gun enthusiasts feel. Being robbed at gunpoint did not make me feel any need to be armed. (I simply cannot imagine shooting anyone, even a kid who’s robbing me.)
But my Maguindanao and Richmond episodes pointed to two key reasons people turn to guns. For some, guns are for fighting criminals. For others, they are for fighting government.
It’s interesting that debates over guns erupted at pretty much the same time in the Philippines and the US. But it is also a sad coincidence since these debates were triggered by bloody tragedies.
Newtown was followed by Kawit and now we have Atimonan. The battles offer opportunities for the two societies to learn from one another. But while the realities of gun violence in the Philippines and the US are, in many ways, similar, there also so many important differences.
In the US, a low point in the raging debate was the infamous rant of a right-wing commentator who blasted CNN host Piers Morgan, yelling, “I’m here to tell you 1776 will commence again if you try to take our firearms!”
That outburst has been widely condemned and pointed to as evidence of the wackiness of many of the opponents of gun control who view restrictions to gun ownership as part of a bizarre conspiracy being hatched by secret sinister forces.
In fact, most of the proposals focus on common sense questions: Should people really be allowed to own high-powered military style weapons? Shouldn’t people who buy weapons at gunshows also be subjected to strict background checks?
Unfortunately, in the Philippines, the situation is more complex. The Atimonan incident underscored this.
Was it a shootout? A police operation gone awry? A massacre? I still don’t understand.
In the Philippines, citizens who buy guns worry about crime. But many of them also worry about the agencies that are supposed to be protecting them against crime.
I agree with President Aquino.
Simply launching into a campaign based on a slogan about banning all guns as a way of ending violence will probably fail. Gun violence is a much more complex problem in the Philippines. It’s related to crime, and to other long-term, complicated problems such as peace, justice and the integrity of the country’s military and security forces.
In fact, Aquino has scored some hits when it comes to taking on these other aspects of gun violence in the Philippines.
The most important one is making peace with the MILF and trying to do the same with the communist underground. I wonder now if the Moro rebels who let me take my first try at a gun are now getting ready to lay down their weapons, looking forward to a time when they won’t need them.
Then there’s the recently-passed Desaparecidos law. It’s not directly related to gun control. But it focuses on the entity that is widely known to be responsible for much of the gun violence in the country: the military and the security forces.
The law sends a very powerful message: that while the armed forces and the police play an important role in protecting the country, it must never, ever abuse that power.
Unfortunately, one of Aquino’s recent statements directly related to gun violence misfired.
He is a known gun enthusiast, and, despite the controversy about that, I actually don’t think that’s a problem. In fact, I think it’s even good for the country to have a president engaged in a sport that requires patience, discipline and precision.
But Aquino’s decision to ask for an exemption from the ban was puzzling.
“I think you will acknowledge that I was a victim of violence in this aspect in 1987,” he told the Philippine Daily Inquirer, referring to his being injured during one of the coup attempts against his mother’s administration.
“The law recognizes my right to self-defense,” he continued. “Self-defense is a skill and it’s a skill that has to be practiced to have any value.”
That was an unfortunate statement. For it framed the problem in a dangerous way. For Aquino essentially said that even the president of the country, who presumably enjoys the best security in the Philippines, is so worried about his own safety that he feels the need to carry a gun.
You can hear an ordinary Filipino reacting, ‘If the president needs a gun for protection, then I should get one too. E kung president na nga, kelangan pa ng baril, paano pa kaya ako.’
Aquino was also quoted as saying, “I’m not the kind who flatters people. Let’s find a way to solve the issue and not try to be cute.”
But is it really about being cute?
I have friends and relatives in Manila who routinely complain that road rage conflicts or disputes over parking have at times led to shootings in the nation’s capital. Throw in the now infamous phenomenon of Filipinos getting shot for singing “My Way” in bars and it’s fairly obvious that there’s nothing cute about trying to discourage citizens from defining their security strictly in terms of whether or not they own a gun.
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