Girl's death triggers gun debate in Philippines

The death of a girl hit by celebratory gunfire on New Year's Eve sparked calls Thursday for stricter gun controls in the Philippines, where unlicensed weapons are widely blamed for rampant violence.

The girl, Stephanie Ella, aged seven, died Wednesday from a gunshot wound to the head, triggering outrage and condemnation of poor law enforcement that allows hundreds of thousands of unregistered firearms to be on the streets.

"This incident should not be allowed to become just another statistic," Vice President Jejomar Binay said in a statement.

"We have enough laws to penalise but the problem has always been in the enforcement of laws," he stressed, as he challenged the police to catch the person responsible for Ella's death.

Ella and her father were watching a fireworks display outside their home in a Manila suburb on Monday when a bullet, apparently fired from celebratory gunfire, struck her.

Ella was the second young victim to die from stray bullets in New Year's eve celebrations, when gun owners traditionally fire bullets into the air or explode powerful firecrackers to make noise.

A four year-old boy was also killed, while a 16-year-old was in a coma after being wounded in a similar incident.

Ella's ordeal, however, was prominently covered in national media, as her grief-stricken parents tensely waited by her hospital bedside as doctors lost the battle to save her.

An outpouring of sympathy followed, led by the office of President Benigno Aquino -- himself a keen sports shooter -- which issued a statement condemning her senseless death.

Prominent anti-crime crusader Dante Jimenez said the government should impose "a total gun ban during the holidays" and not only during elections, when rival politicians are known to engage in blood feuds.

"There should be no guns on the streets during these times. That is the only way," he said.

However, he said the bigger problem was the failure of the authorities to seize all illegal firearms in the face of mounting violence.

There were 1.2 million registered firearms in the Philippines as of last year, according to data from the police firearms and explosives office.

It said there were another roughly 600,000 unlicensed firearms in circulation across the Philippines.

While carrying an unlicensed firearm is punishable by up to six years in prison, it remains relatively easy to acquire guns in the black market, Jimenez said.

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