If you’re a parent, you’d know the feeling. In fact, if you’re someone’s brother or sister, you’d know the feeling. Still in fact, if you’re just a human being you’d know the feeling.
That’s the feeling you get at the death of 7-year-old Stephanie Nicole Ella. That is the feeling of shock, horror, sorrow, rage, fury, a sense of disbelief, a sense of senselessness, a questioning of heaven about why such hellish things like this happen. The loss is as incalculable as it is unnecessary. The loss is as unimaginable as it is preventable.
Nicole had been dancing the Gangnam just a few hours before, filled with the laugher and innocence of childhood, looking forward to the joy and abundance of a new year like every one of us. She had gone out of her house in Caloocan with her parents and siblings to watch the fireworks and revel in the thunderous bursts of firecrackers and other sounds of merrymaking. Then suddenly she fell to the ground, bleeding copiously in the head. She had been hit by a bullet on the top of her head, which ripped off the left side of her brain before exiting through the lower part of her cheek. She was rushed to the hospital where she fought bravely on for 38 hours before succumbing to death.
Can you imagine how her parents must feel? To be thrown into the pit of despair at the height of euphoric revelry? Can they ever look at any New Year’s Eve again without feeling bereft and desolated? All that loud and noisy explosion, all that wild and reckless abandon, was meant to chase away the demons, to greet the new day with cheer. But two kids dead from being shot, another critically wounded, scores injured from wayward bullets, quite apart from the hundreds maimed by firecrackers: All it did was unleash the demons into our midst.
Nicole has become the Philippine version of the gang-rape victim in India, stoking the country to grief and fury, teeth-gnashing and soul-searching. For good reason: Some crimes, though they be the product of a murder-waiting-to-happen rather than a willfully committed one, are simply monstrously incomprehensible and incomprehensibly monstrous. Like the gang-rape-and-murder in India, it has stoked as well calls for ways to make sure it doesn’t happen again. It will be cold comfort to Nicole’s kin as they continue to find a gaping hole in their hearts, but you hope at least it will make sure she did not die entirely in vain.
The police have vowed to find Nicole’s killer and run after those who fired guns during New Year’s Eve, and government itself has vowed to curb or stop the spread of loose firearms. Those things are imperative, but they are not enough.
True enough, finding Nicole’s killer is non-negotiable. It is a matter of justice, it is a matter of restoring balance in the universe. Her killing is a crime of epic proportions; it deserves a punishment of epic proportions. But that killer, unwitting as he is, reluctant as he is, is not the only criminal, is not the only one deserving of punishment. He merely happened to be the one that hit a target. Many others fired their guns too, and it is only by the merest luck—one is tempted to say by Providence, except that you wonder how Providence could be so improvident with a 7-year-old (and 4-year-old)—that they did not kill or maim someone too.
The firing of the guns in the air itself is the crime, the ones who fire the guns in the air themselves are the criminals. Lito Lapid for once makes complete sense when he says there ought to be a law on this. And indeed he has filed one that goes all the way back to January last year calling for stiffer penalties for this. Specifically, calling for amending current laws that merely slap offenders a maximum prison term of six months. His bill proposes six years for those found guilty of “illegal discharge,” 12-20 years where the culprit is a person of authority, and life imprisonment if someone dies from it.
Harsh? Look at Nicole and see if that’s so. Look at her parents and sibling and friends and classmates and see if that’s so.
You see the problem when someone like PNP chief Alan Purisima himself says in the case of two cops who were among 18 people caught firing guns last New Year’s Eve, “These two policemen may be dismissed from the service …. We are now finishing the summary hearing and will come up with a decision soon.” What the hell else do you need to discuss and process? The only thing you need to know is whether they fired their guns or not. If they did, fire them, prosecute them, and jail them. As well indeed as the others: Prosecute them and jail them too. There are not enough jails to house them? Then build more.
It has never been a matter of wit, it has always been a matter of will.
But the problem goes farther, and the solution goes farther. We want to stop this from happening again, let’s stop the proliferation of guns, let’s stop the spread of guns, let’s stop the fetish for guns. The distinction between loose and tight firearms, between unregistered and registered guns, between unlicensed and licensed guns is a thin one. The ones who were spotted firing their guns last New Year’s Eve were not all civilians sporting paltik, they were barangay officials, security guards, cops and soldiers, public officials or their children flashing flashy guns while on a drinking spree. We presume their guns are licensed, registered, tight. It’s not just driving and drinking that don’t mix, it’s having guns and drinking that don’t mix. New Year’s Eve being a license to drink, it has become as well, with the plethora of guns, with the flood of guns, overrunning us, a license to fire, a license to shoot, a license to kill.
Still, the villain is not out there, it is inside us.