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Guns, mental illness

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The calls for gun control are all too predictable, and worrisome. I fear that after a few weeks, public concern will wear off and people will forget the two children killed by still unidentified gunmen ON New Year’s Eve, and the victims of gunman Ronald Bae in Kawit, Cavite.

What we do need from groups that support gun control are the hard facts on the number of loose firearms in the Philippines, registered and unregistered, and a clearer picture of the extent to which firearms contribute to violence.

But just as important are the hard facts around mental illness in the country and how this figures in violent crime, especially when firearms are involved. Bae was known to be a shabu user but people forget that one of the most serious, and common, side effects of shabu is psychosis, which can cause problems even when the person is not on the drug.

That’s a lot of material to cover but let me just give some of the facts and figures that I was able to find, with the hope that other researchers will dig up more information to guide our policies.

Homicides

Let’s look first at the bigger picture of violent crimes. In my lectures to medical students I always point out that homicides are “hidden” under “accidents,” which are the fourth leading cause of death in the country.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has figures for intentional homicide, or “unlawful death inflicted by one person upon another,” for most countries for the years 1995 to 2011. A country with a small population will obviously have fewer deaths from any cause, so statisticians use a common factor—for example, per 100,000 people—to allow comparisons. The Philippines’ homicide rates fluctuated between 7 and 8 per 100,000 people, then dropped to 6.7 in 2007, 6.5 in 2008, 5.4 in 2009.

How do these figures compare with neighboring countries? Let’s look at the year 2008, for which figures are available for several countries in our region. The Philippines had a rate of 6.5 per 100,000 compared to: Japan 0.4, Singapore 0.4, Hong Kong SAR 0.7, China 1.1, Vietnam 1.6, Macau SAR 1.9, South Korea 2.9, Taiwan 3.5, Laos 4.6, Timor Leste 6.9, Indonesia 8.1.

How do we compare with the world? The highest homicide rate reported in 2008 was Honduras with 61.3 per 100,000, Jamaica with 59.5, Cote D’Ivoire with 56.9 and El Salvador with 51.9. The lowest rates were those in Europe and, in our part of the world, Japan and Singapore, falling below 1 per 100,000. The United States had a rate of 5.4 per 100,000, one of the highest among developed countries, but note it is lower than the Philippines’.

The UNODC table did not have death rates from gunshots. There is a UN International Study on Firearms Regulations published in 1997 which did have these figures for various years in the 1990s, but the Philippines was not included. Nevertheless, I want to cite two countries included in the report to show why we need such figures. South Africa had the highest homicide rate of 64.6 per 100,000, with firearms-inflicted deaths running at 26.6 per 100,000 or about 41 percent of all homicides. The United States ranked sixth in homicide deaths at 8.95 per 100,000 and firearms-inflicted homicides at 6.24 per 100,000, meaning 70 percent of homicides were caused by firearms.

My point is that we need to look at the extent of firearms-associated deaths, and injuries, to establish how much of a problem the guns are. I have not been able to find figures for the Philippines except for one citation in a website called nationmaster.com, which reported the Philippines had 7708 “murders with firearms,” no year given, and with a notation that we were “second [highest] of 36 [countries].  Their source was a World Health Organization Report on Violence and Health published in 2002. I found that report but could not find the Philippine figure.

The bottom line is that we do have a high homicide rate, lower certainly than many countries but higher than many other countries in the region. Unfortunately, we do not seem to have statistics on gun-inflicted deaths and injuries but the last New Year’s Eve gunshot-related deaths and injuries, and the Kawit massacre, should spur us to bring out those figures.

National psyche

The number of firearms in the country is staggering. The Inquirer carried a report last Oct. 16 quoting figures on firearms from Chief Insp. Nelson Bautista, chief of the Inspection and Enforcement Section, Firearms and Explosives Office. Bautista said there were some 1,592,000 registered firearms in the country issued to “private individuals, juridical entities, and security personnel.” In addition, there were 610,000 firearms whose licenses expired in August 2012.

What is the psychological profile of the gun owners? I see numerous cars with “PROGun” stickers, proclaiming themselves to be “peaceful, responsible owners of guns,” but is there screening of applicants for firearms licenses, as well as those who will be using those guns but not necessarily holding the license itself—the military and police, and security guards? The United States supposedly has screening criteria for gun owners, and yet has so many violent gun-related homicides each year.

Let me introduce an anthropological perspective to the discussion. Problems arise when violence and lethal weapons are seen as normal parts of life, which seems to be the case in the Philippines. The normalization happens because we get so accustomed to seeing armed men around. You can do your own quick research and count the number of armed security guards on a street with commercial establishments. Or count the number of guards in your subdivision.

The firing of guns on New Year’s Eve emerges as part of this distorted culture. It’s bad enough that people would shoot into the air, but one could dismiss these gunshots as stupidity because the gunmen are at least trying to be “safe” but are just ignorant of basic physics and gravity: What goes up must come down. What is disturbing is that Ranjilo Nimer, one of the two children killed by guns on New Year’s Eve, had four bullet wounds, which means the gunshots could not have been the result of random firing into the air. Has something snapped in our national psyche so that New Year’s Eve revelers think they have the right to just fire guns into a crowd, “for fun”? I strongly suspect that is the case because guns have become symbols of power and masculinity.

As we look for ways to prevent more Kawit massacres and yearend lethal gunshots, we have to be comprehensive, using hard facts and figures, but also getting as much background information as possible, including the stories behind the headlines. Who were Ronald Bae and John Paul Lopez?

We need to think of prevention. Can we mobilize communities to identify men (and women) with guns, and with signs of mental illness? How do we handle the glorification of guns, from toys to popular TV shows like “The Walking Dead”? In so many words, behind the gun trigger are more triggering factors.

Elections are around the corner and we need to be prepared for more assaults from guns, not necessarily by goons, but by the friendly-looking cop, security guard, neighbor, friend. “Baril ako ninong,” a child victim in Kawit called out after he and two of his sisters were shot. One sister died from the godfather’s gunshot.


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