By Manuel Mogato
MANDAUE CITY, Philippines (Reuters) - In the Philippines, they vote with their trigger fingers. Elections mean big business for illegal gunsmiths, who are looking forward to 2013 mid-term polls.
With election-related violence commonplace, the Philippines imposes a ban on the carrying of guns for six months, from campaigning to the proclamation of winners.
With legal access denied, Filipinos simply turn to the many illegal gunsmiths who ply their trade in back alleys and on the edge of rice fields despite government crackdowns.
In Danao City, in the northeast of central Cebu island, they are already anticipating a windfall.
"There's actually huge demand for guns, especially now and because of the elections next year," said a 33-year-old gunsmith, who asked to be named only as Remo, as he hammered away at bits of scrap metal in a makeshift factory in Danao.
Loud music drowned out the noise of Remo's workshop on the edge of a dry creek, hidden from view by thick bamboo groves, as he and two assistants hammered, filed and drilled away.
"We are actually having some difficulty in keeping up with the orders because it usually takes at least two weeks to make one .45 caliber pistol, even if I work 16 hours a day," he said.
"THE WORLD OF OUR FATHERS"
As the pro- and anti-gun lobbies in the United States agonize over how to respond to yet another massacre of innocents, in the Philippines many want even more liberal gun laws to boost production of a small but growing legal industry.
Guns have long been part of everyday life in the Philippines, especially since the end of World War Two.
After the war, farmers took up arms during agrarian unrest in the late 1940s and early 1950s and then a Maoist insurgency that has become one of the world's longest-running conflicts.
Today, all private security guards in the Philippines carry either handguns or shotguns, or both. Guns are a common sight in shopping malls, government and private offices, banks, restaurants and even schools.
"When we were children, we were already surrounded by guns. It was the world of our fathers," said Elmer Genzon, a third-generation gunsmith who once made "paltik", or illegal weapons, out of scrap metal and bits of angle iron.
"We grew up making guns."
According to www.gunpolicy.org, a site hosted by the University of Sydney's School of Public Health in Australia, there are about 3.9 million guns -- legal and illegal -- held by civilians in the Philippines, or about 4.7 per 100 people.
That puts the Philippines 105th place on a list of 179 countries, tiny in comparison to the 88.8 per 100 in the United States and behind even Australia with 15 per 100.
While it is impossible to count the number of illegal guns in the Philippines, the national police estimate there are about 350,000, again paltry in comparative terms to Central and South American weapons hotspots like Guatemala, Honduras and Colombia.
Yet the Philippines suffers worryingly high gun-crime rates.
According to the latest available figures from the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, there were 8.9 homicides per 100,000 people in 2003, by far the worst in Asia and outstripping Europe. (www.unodc.org/unodc/en/data-and-analysis/homicide.html)
While not at the levels of Central and South America, the number was still almost triple that of the United States, which had 3.3 homicides per 100,000 people the same year.
Illegal guns are not just carried by criminal gangs, Maoist rebels and Muslim separatists. They also belong to civilians and politicians who keep private armies.
Investigations into the Ampatuan family, a political clan linked to the 2009 massacre of 57 people, including dozens of journalists, found more than 1,000 high-powered weapons, including mortars and .50 caliber machineguns.
In the 2004 elections, authorities decided to crack down on illegal gunsmiths in Cebu. There had been more desultory attempts to act against an industry dating back to the early 1900s.
Police closed the Genzon family's home factory on the edge of a rice field during the 2004 crackdown.
Like other gunsmiths from his hometown, he was soon working at the government-registered Shooters' Arms Manufacturing factory about 25 km (15 miles) down the road in Mandaue City.
"We no longer have to worry about police raids and we also have a steady source of income, plus some health and other social benefits," Genzon, 33, told Reuters while he wrapped a handcrafted model of a 1911 Colt .45 destined for a dealer in Rochester, New York.
A small army of 400 workers assembles revolvers and pistols at the Mandaue factory, which exports guns to the United States, Australia, Italy and Thailand.
Factory owner Romulo de Leon III, a second-generation gun dealer, quickly recognized the unusual skills developed by the illegal, backyard gunsmiths when he decided to switch from selling imported weapons to making his own.
His partly automated factory now produces about 20,000 guns a year, with up to 85 percent of them sold abroad, making him the second largest gun manufacturer in the Philippines.
With cheap labor and Filipino ingenuity, de Leon wants to expand into new markets in Eastern Europe and South America.
With more foreign markets in their gunsights, legal manufacturers hope President Benigno Aquino, a gun enthusiast who shoots competitively, will help liberalize gun laws.
"What we want is a more balanced gun legislation, not too restrictive, but we also understand that guns must be regulated," said Demetrio Tuason, head of the largest and oldest manufacturer in the Philippines, Armscor, at a Manila gun show.
Existing laws allow Filipinos to own one "long" firearm -- a rifle or shotgun -- and one handgun. Guns are meant to be licensed and owners must have permits to carry them in public.
Tuason wants gun licenses more like driving licenses, allowing people to "own as many guns as they can afford".
Not surprisingly, gun sellers also want to expand the industry, worth about 2.5 billion pesos ($59.37 million). Export receipts grew fourfold to $23.4 million between 2000-11.
But, just like in the United States, there seems little appetite to change existing laws. "That's not a priority right now," Aquino told Reuters in an interview earlier this month.
There are 34 gun-related bills before both houses of parliament, some seeking looser laws and others more control.
Supporters of two prominent bills seeking to outlaw civilians carrying guns in public and stiffer penalties for possession of illegal weapons have all but given up hope.
Much like the United States, guns are so deeply ingrained in Philippines culture that they don't expect the July 20 shooting in a Colorado cinema, in which 12 people were killed and 58 wounded, will have much of an impact.
"For the last 22 years we've been telling our lawmakers ... to pass a strict gun control law but nothing has happened," said Nandy Pacheco of the Gunless Society group.
"Our gun laws are encouraging a culture of guns, a culture of violence. When do we act? Are we waiting for a similar attack to happen here in our movie houses?"
($1 = 42 pesos)
(Editing by Paul Tait)