"Duterte's knee-jerk reaction to what he sees as rampant criminality is nonsensical and absurd."
What is this new group called "Global Coalition of Lingkod Bayan Advocacy Support Groups and Force Multipliers" that was launched recently in Camp Crame that had for a guest speaker no less than President Rodrigo Duterte?
The coalition is supposedly composed of civilian organizations that will serve as partners of the police in fighting crime.
But why is this group a "global coalition" when their avowed purpose is to help the Philippine National Police in combating crime in this part of the Pacific Ocean?
And who's behind this new group? News reports did not say who they are, but they must be so influential that Duterte himself would grace their launching activity and tell them what they really wanted to hear: that the government would give them firearms so they can help fight criminality amid the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond.
What Duterte said was that the PNP’s civilian volunteers could be given guns so they could defend themselves while making a citizen’s arrest.
“If you are qualified, get a gun and help us enforce the laws,” he said. “The criminal must die, you must live,” Duterte explained, pointing out that he did not want civilians making the arrest to end up dead because they did not have the means to defend themselves.
Duterte's pronouncement, predictably, sent alarm bells ringing at a fast and furious pace among concerned public officials and non-government organizations.
Among the first to react with profound dismay over Duterte's pronouncement before a shadowy group of seemingly eager-beaver vigilantes was Vice President Leni Robredo, who said that arming anti-crime civilian groups is “too dangerous” as it could lead to abuses.
"It’s a big responsibility…Arming (them) is not just something you do. The opportunity for abuse seems big.” She noted that there would always be people who would violate laws, but this was “more of an exception to the rule…Not all people are hard-headed that we have to arm civilians to help in pursuing them.”
Senate President Vicente Sotto III interpreted the president’s statement to mean that he only wanted to relax the licensing of firearms, saying civilians had long been allowed to carry firearms.
But Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon said the arming of civilian volunteers was an admission of the Duterte administration of its failure to provide security and protection to Filipinos.
“The proposal carries a high risk that guns may fall in the wrong hands and, therefore, only exacerbate criminality,” Drilon said. “What can solve the country’s growing problems on criminality and its main drivers—poverty and hunger—is good governance, not guns.”
Sen. Joel Villanueva, a pro-life advocate, said the president’s proposal carried the burden of framing the proper protocols and defining the legal bounds on rules of engagement between armed personnel and civilians.
Sen. Aquilino Pimentel III said that instead of relaxing the rules on gun ownership, the government must tighten them. “Train the police better. Hire more policemen if necessary,” he said.
Within Duterte's Cabinet, the response to his proposal to arm civilians to fight crime was lukewarm. According to Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra: “I believe that the PNP is strong enough to perform this duty. Besides, except for a few high-profile incidents of violence, criminality on the streets is at an all-time low, due in part to the pandemic.”
“Civilians have always been free to arm themselves for their protection, provided they comply with all existing laws and regulations on the ownership, possession, and carrying of firearms outside residence, including the requirement to pass a NeuroPsychiatric Test,” he said.
As Guevarra noted, however, it would be an entirely different matter if the civilian volunteers were allowed “to band together and act like vigilante [groups].”
PNP chief Gen. Guillermo Eleazar gave assurances that anti-crime volunteers would have to follow the rules and procedures in securing firearms. It would require getting a license to own and possess firearms (LTOPF) and a permit to carry firearms outside of residence (PTCFOR).
Meanwhile, the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) reminded the government that the PNP, whose mandate as the main law enforcement agency, is already “more than enough” to fight crime.
“Arming civilians without proper training, qualification, and clear lines of accountabilities may lead to lawlessness and proliferation of arms, which may further negatively impact the human rights situation in the country,” said CHR spokesperson Jacqueline de Guia.
Progressive groups Karapatan, Pamalakaya and Bayan assailed the President’s suggestion and urged the government to consider the repeated recommendations of many rights advocates and even the United Nations Human Rights Council to disband and disarm paramilitaries.
Karapatan secretary general Cristina Palabay said arming civilians would only “spell more human rights violations in context of the numerous reported cases of extrajudicial killings especially with police and military’s oft-use of the ‘nanlaban’ narrative, arbitrary arrests and detention, torture and other grave violations.”
Bagong Alyansang Makabayan secretary general Renato Reyes said: “The Philippines would turn into a wild, wild West if it allows this dark proposal to go through.”
Malacañang, apparently stung by the outcry over Duterte's pronouncement, clarified later that the president’s latest pronouncement was not yet final, but if ever this would become policy, the volunteers would be trained on the use of guns.
But wasn't it Roque who earlier said that when the President speaks, that's already considered policy?
If that's the case, we can imagine the members of the "Global Coalition" already canvassing the different gun shops to see which firearms—from pistols and revolvers to shotguns and semi-automatic rifles—that civilians are authorized to own and carry outside residence. Then it's just a matter of time before we see them roaming the streets at every hour of day and night looking for suspicious characters who might be criminals intent on murder and mayhem. Or maybe not.
Armed and dangerous. That would be an accurate description of civilians given firearms so they can do battle with criminals, hardened or otherwise. Duterte's knee-jerk reaction to what he sees as rampant criminality is nonsensical and absurd, and right-thinking citizens—that is, all those who still believe that we have a Constitution that guarantees due process of law and presumption of innocence until proven guilty—would do well to fight tooth and nail.