The Philippines has one of the highest rates of gun ownership in South East Asia.
Around 1 and a half million Filipinos are licensed firearm carriers. But, a high rate of violent crime reveals that many weapons fall into the wrong hands. There are 8-thousand plus homicides each year according to the United Nations.
Many Filipinos see gun ownership as their cultural and historical right.
Very few activists have tried to take on the arms industry and the pro-gun government.
Jason Strother has the story on one of those anti-gun crusaders from 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.
Gun ownership goes back generations in the Philippines, there’s a history of hunting and shooting for sport here.
But some see a direct correlation between this tradition and the country’s modern rate of gun related violence.
“Oh it’s widespread, it's national, it's widespread. Everyone will tell you that. Every Tom, Dick and Harry can buy a gun. You can get your gun easily”
Reynaldo Pacheco, who goes by his nickname Nandy, is perhaps the Philippines most outspoken critic of the country’s gun culture.
He invited me to his countryside home just outside the capital.
Walking past the flock of chickens by the front door, I enter his very 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 up children.
After a long career as a lawyer and serving in the UN, Pacheco founded the advocacy group a Gunless Society 25-years ago.
In 1998 he was a Vice Presidential candidate, who ran on a gun reform platform, but lost.
Today, he’s 82 years old and he’s not slowing down.
He tells me about 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. 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 succeed, but other when they are seen by a Japanese solider, the soldier shoots him,” Nandy says.
Pacheco says that might be what inspired him to go on to hate guns.
And if you want 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. We learned many good things from the Americans, but what we learned most was this addiction to violence, to guns.”
Inside his home’s small office, Pacheco tells me about the first murder case his Gunless Society took on as their cause.
Through his political party, he’s successfully introduced some reforms, including a ban on carrying weapons on election days. He says it hasn’t been easy trying to persuade other 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”
This is an advertisement for one of the Philippines largest arms makers. Pacheco says these companies and their political supporters make his country more dangerous.
Ernesto Tabujara agrees that the Philippines can be dangerous and that’s 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 there is a direct correlation between the crime rate and gun ownership. 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,” Tabujara says.
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.
But there was a lull in violence- when Pope Francis visited the Philippines in January.
While the Pontiff didn’t address the country’s rate of violent crime during his mass, every word he said was closely followed by many of the Philippines’ 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? Its 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 all together.
Even if that doesn’t become law during his life, he says he’s proud that he never gave up his cause.
“If it doesn’t become a law, success would be measured not by success, but faithfulness, my faithfulness to the cause. That is what matters.”
Q. That’s why you are not giving up.
“Even if I die, I will consider it, I’ve done the best I could. I am happy. That’s all that I could do.”
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