In the wake of yet another mass shooting in the United States, this time made more horrific by its target—children, 20 of whom died in the hail of bullets, all of them aged six to seven and each one shot multiple times—quite a number of Filipino netizens took to their Facebook or Twitter not only to voice shock and sadness at the tragedy but also to harrumph rather indelicately.
Thank God we don’t live in a society like America, was the common refrain. We have our own grave problems in the Philippines, but we don’t have mass shootings here—not in our communities or schools, and certainly not against our kids. For all its sheen of modernity and prosperity, something is rotten in the state of America, that it has bred, and is breeding, malevolent people like Adam Lanza, 20—the latest in a long line of ordinary, otherwise innocuous citizens who, for some reason, just flip one day and become raging mass murderers.
It’s an understandable sentiment, but not accurate, and certainly not enough to justify the cluck-clucking. Have we forgotten, after all, our own episodes of mass carnage? The worst so far, the abomination known all over the world as the massacre in Ampatuan, Maguindanao, is just three years old. As the trial slogs along, none of the perpetrators are anywhere near being punished for their ghastly crime.
In America, the massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, might just prove to be the tipping point toward a more rational discussion over private gun ownership—a cherished right that gun enthusiasts say is enshrined in the US Constitution. Despite the string of mass shootings over the years that have scarred American towns and cities, no American politician—not even Barack Obama, who mothballed his campaign promise of tighter gun control during his first term as president—has dared cross the powerful progun lobby, especially the National Rifle Association, whose response to the Newtown killings is classic denial writ large: silence.
But this time, the heartrending sight of children slain in cold blood by a gunman wielding legally registered handguns and an assault rifle (the property of his gun-obsessed mother, it turns out, whom he also killed at their home before his rampage at Sandy Hook school) has prompted renewed soul-searching among Americans over their tangled relationship with firearms. Joe Manchin, a Democratic senator who’s also a lifetime NRA member, has said “everything needs to be at the table” at this point, including the need to craft new laws regulating the purchase and use of assault weapons—a position the NRA has long rabidly opposed.
Just how many guns are there? The FBI has estimated that there may be over 200 million firearms owned by private citizens in the United States; CNN says the total number of nonmilitary firearms in the country as of 2009 is a staggering 310 million. In the Philippines, meanwhile, the Philippine National Police pegs the local number at 600,000—and that’s only the unregistered ones.
The figure may be comparatively small, but it carries a twisted distinction. In the semifeudal Philippine environment, most of the deadly weapons are mostly in the hands of politicians and their private armies, or criminal syndicates in cahoots with corrupt personnel in the police and military forces. Where Americans, then, grapple with the no less reprehensible experience of mass shootings perpetrated by ordinary people with legally registered firearms, Filipinos are at the mercy of a different breed altogether: the politically powerful and influential, who use their private armory to maintain their political and economic dominance in the pecking order, even to bloody ends.
Neither reality is desirable—but if Filipinos must learn a lesson from America’s continuing tragedy, it is that the proliferation of firearms, whether in the hands of ordinary citizens (notice that most mass shooters have no prior record before their shooting spree?) or the sprawling private armies of politicians, cannot be tolerated in a society dedicated to peaceful democratic discourse. Reaching for a gun, and killing with one, becomes so much easier if the firearm is indeed nearby.
Now that elections are a few months away, expect more gun-related deaths in the news, especially in the rural areas where warlords continue to hold sway. They might not be on the same scale as the Newtown killings or even the Ampatuan massacre, but such incidents are no less consequential for this country’s prospects as a so-called democratic society. What has happened, in fact, to President Aquino’s promise to dismantle private armies?