A .45 calibre pistol is tucked into the waistband of a tricycle driver as he speeds along a desolate stretch of highway that cuts through a Muslim rebel stronghold in the southern Philippine town of Datu Piang in Mindanao.
"I can get attacked by bandits, rebels or my enemies, and my gun spells the difference between life and death," he told IRIN.
Similar scenarios are played out across this strife-torn, southern island, where violence borne out of nearly four decades of Muslim separatist insurgency by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) has forced many civilians to acquire firearms, illegally.
The proliferation of these guns in turn perpetuates a cycle of violence that the government is struggling to contain, officials say.
An estimated 1.1 million unlicensed firearms are owned by civilians, criminal groups and insurgents across the country, according to the Philippine National Police.
About 15,000 firearms, mostly high-powered rifles, are owned by the insurgent groups in the south of the country, including the MILF, the smaller Al Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf and communist rebels, said national police chief director-general Jesus Versoza.
"We are maintaining a watchlist," he told IRIN. This is in addition to the 1.8 million licensed firearms held by the police, the military and security agencies.
Photo: Jason Gutierrez/IRIN
boys at an illegal gun manufacturing shack in the Philippines. There
are over 1.1 million unlicensed firearms across the country, many of
which are in the hands of civilians and various armed insurgent groups
Right to a gun
For Jun Miru, 42, a recent convert to Islam, owning a gun is not only for self-protection, but is a right under the teachings of his religion. "You have a right to protect yourself, to defend when attacked. How can you continue Allah's work if you are dead?" he asked.
Miru worked as a labourer in the Middle East in the 1990s with high hopes of improving his family's finances. Upon returning home, he saw a community under constant attack by rebels, and general lawlessness that put his wife and four children in danger.
"People here have many firearms. They will not respect you if you don't have a gun," he said, pointing to a traffic police officer armed with an M-16 rifle. "None of the drivers, who are also armed, would follow him if he didn't have that."
The situation has become so grim that official statistics show 97.7 percent of gun-related crimes from 2004 to 2008 were committed using unlicensed firearms. This ranks the Philippines 10th in gun homicide rates worldwide, said police chief Versoza.
"The presence of loose firearms in the country contributes to our problems with peace and order," he said. "There is a cultural propensity to possess firearms in the Philippines, especially in Mindanao."
Versoza said political warlords considered owning many firearms a "status symbol" and a source of power.
The government has given holders of unlicensed firearms until the end of October to have them registered or face intensified crackdowns, said Versoza.
The amnesty, however, will not cover machine guns, or high-calibre rifles, grenade launchers and homemade firearms, which he said were mostly used by rebels and criminal gangs.
Versoza said the situation was expected to deteriorate as the Philippines prepared to go to the polls in May 2010 to choose a new president, half the senate, more than 250 congressmen and thousands of local officials, from village councillors to provincial governors.
To tackle the scourge, legislators had to overhaul the country's outdated firearms laws, he said.
"At present, the law on illegal firearms still allows people caught with unlicensed firearms to post bail," he said, citing an incident where members of a criminal gang caught with a truckload of firearms posted bail - and the next day carried out a bank heist.