Hidden beneath tarpaulins in the backyard of a house in the central Philippine city of Danao, Lito puts the finishing touches on a replica .45-caliber Colt Officer’s Model pistol. It will join the more than 600,000 illegal guns in circulation in a country where the homicide rate outstrips the U.S.
The money he makes from guns supplements his income as a farmer and helped Lito, 52, send two children to college. Still, he thinks often of the suffering that may come from a craft he learned from an uncle and older brother.
“I worry that the firearms I make may be ending up in the wrong hands,” said Lito, a soft-spoken man dressed in loose jeans and slippers, who asked not to be identified in full given the nature of his work. “If there were other opportunities, I will stop making guns.”
Lito, who will sell the pistol that took him a month to make for 6,000 pesos ($133) -- about three-quarters of the monthly minimum wage -- is one of 6,000 illegal gunmakers the Danao government is seeking to regulate. City officials want to move them into legalized factories before demand for illicit firearms picks up ahead of nationwide elections in 2016 in a country with a history of vote-related violence. Fifty eight people were slain in a massacre six months before the May 2010 elections.
Gun-control laws and economic growth forecast to exceed 6 percent this year, one of the fastest rates in Asia, have failed to put a major dent in crime. The nation faces entrenched Muslim rebellions and a Maoist guerrilla group, not to mention hired killers and more than 100 private armies, according to Amnesty International. Easy access to weapons exacerbates conflict, saps economic potential and deters tourists, according to Arjan Aguirre, a political science instructor at the Ateneo de Manila University.
“When you have a weak state, conflict is inevitable, and loose firearms play a key role in insurgency areas,” said Aguirre, who co-authored a 2012 study on gun proliferation. “We have weak law enforcement and that’s where patronage politics and crony capitalism come in. The first ones to own a gun are the rich, then the criminals, and ordinary people who feel the police can’t protect them.”
The craftsmen of Danao’s cottage industry range from teenagers to the elderly -- the majority of them male. The city made guns as early as the Philippine-American war at the start of the 20th century, when gunsmiths in the hills were said to have supplied Cebuano rebels with weapons, according to historian and author Michael Cullinane. During the Japanese occupation in the 1940s, Danao supplied Filipino guerrillas in Cebu province with handguns locally known as paltik, he said.
The gunsmiths thrive even as police regularly raid backyard operations, Councilor Jose Thaddeus Roble, who heads the peace and order committee in the city of 119,000 people, said in an interview in his office on Oct. 1. Risking jail terms of as long as 40 years, gunsmiths often post bail and return to making weapons.
“Most of our gunsmiths are farmers who go into the business of making guns because of poverty,” Roble said. “They use the money to feed their families. Instead of judging them, we pity them.”
About 900 gunsmiths have expressed interest in being legalized and the city is seeking to enlist about 3,000 people to join a cooperative it wants set up by 2016, he said. That would mean firearms are manufactured with valid serial numbers that will help authorities track them.
“The government can’t play cat-and-mouse with these gunsmiths forever,” Roble said. “The skill was passed from generation to generation, so we might as well help them get in the fold of the law.”
From Smith & Wesson revolvers and Para-Ordnance 1911 pistols to Uzi submachine guns, the homemade copies risk ending up in the hands of crime syndicates and political private armies, Roble said.
There are as many as 610,000 illicit firearms in the Philippines, according to gunpolicy.org, a website hosted by the Sydney School of Public Health. Civilians in the Philippines, which has a population of more than 100 million, own about 3.9 million licensed and unlicensed firearms, it said.
Even though many killings go unreported, the Philippines still has a homicide rate of 8.8 for every 100,000 people, three times the Asian average and almost twice that of the U.S., according to a 2013 report from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. In the U.S. the rate is 4.7, the UN said.
The Philippines does not provide specific data on gun-related homicides. Offenses involving women and minors are significantly under counted and most police stations don’t have official desk blotters to record crimes, according to findings released by the national police in June.
“Our system remains feudal and we have no rule of law,” Ramon Casiple, executive director of the Institute for Political and Electoral Reform in Manila, said in an interview. “That’s where the image of the Wild West comes from,” said Casiple, who advises an elite police unit that deals with high-profile crimes on how to modernize.
Among the country’s registered gun owners are President Benigno Aquino, his tax commissioner and central bank governor. During a visit to the U.S. in September, the president stopped by a California gun shop and bought gun optics, a range bag, eye- and ear-protection accessories and a safe, ABS-CBN reported, citing the shop owner.
“I’m concerned about crimes whether they’re gun-related or not,” Tax Commissioner Kim Henares said in an interview, noting that most licensed gun owners are law-abiding citizens. Central bank governor Amando Tetangco didn’t reply to an e-mail seeking comment.
“President Aquino is highly aware and is seriously concerned about the proliferation of unlicensed firearms that account for almost all gun-related crimes in the country,” Communications Secretary Sonny Coloma said in an e-mailed reply to questions. “Stricter law enforcement by the Philippine National Police should result in lower gun-related crime rates.”
Danao’s city government wants to establish four satellite factories supervised by the police near the gunmakers’ homes, aside from a main factory near City Hall. A cooperative that the government authorized to manufacture guns closed after failing to account for some weapons it made in 2010, prompting a police raid, Roble said. Gunsmiths were also turned off by low pay and having to travel to the factory in the coastal village of Dunggoan.
“The pistolador would rather make guns in his own home, right after plowing his rice field and letting his carabao cool off in the swamp,” Roble said. “It’s hard to tell them to come out because of trust issues.”
While neighbors shooting each other is largely unheard of in Danao the firearms -- sold to middlemen for as little as 650 pesos each -- create problems elsewhere. In the southern province of Mindanao, a four-decade Muslim insurgency has killed as many as 200,000 people.
In one of the worse episodes of general violence, gunmen in November 2009 stopped a convoy carrying family members and supporters of a Maguindanao province gubernatorial candidate as they went to register his candidacy. The gunmen forced the group including about 30 journalists off the highway near the town of Ampatuan onto a hill and executed them. Andal Ampatuan Sr., the former Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao governor, is on trial for the killings. He has denied the murder charges and the trial is ongoing.
“Homicides tend to occur among people who know each other, and in many cases sometimes too well,” said Ricardo Abad, who heads the Ateneo de Manila University’s Department of Sociology and Anthropology, speaking of the country’s murder rate.
“The economy may soar but if a lot of people are marginalized and impoverished, you’re more likely to get problems,” said Abad. “That inequality and a loose gun system, plus our relatively more democratic system, are an even more potent brew for social problems.”
Aquino has enacted a measure that tightened a three-decade gun-control law, limiting firearm ownership to Filipinos at least 21 years old in gainful work. The law, which took effect in January, offers a six-month amnesty to unlicensed gun owners.
Exemptions have been frequent in the past and with local and national elections due to be held in 2016, the imperative to act is growing.
“We need to finish negotiations with illegal gunsmiths and set up the factories by 2016,” Roble told village captains during an informal meeting at City Hall on Oct. 1. “Otherwise our efforts will have been for nothing in case a new mayor comes in after two years.”
Backyard gunmaker Lito sees no reason to stop his business though it can be difficult to hide it from neighbors, especially with the noise generated when he’s drilling metal under the cover of tarpaulins. He expressed an interest in joining a legal cooperative if set up.
“I get nervous when I see a cop in the neighborhood because I don’t want to get caught,” he said. “But I will keep making guns while I can because that’s the work that I’ve come to know.”