It used to be that when one wanted to acquire or renew a license to own a firearm, one went to this office at Camp Crame that resembled a public market, swarming with people, both citizens renewing or applying for their licenses and an equally large and noisy horde of fixers offering to make the acquisition of the licenses faster and easier — for an under-the-table fee, of course.
The situation has since changed with the reforms introduced by Chief Supt. Valeriano de Leon who now heads the Philippine National Police’s (PNP) Firearms and Explosives Office (FEO).
Handsome and youthful looking, De Leon looked smart and engaging in his crisp uniform on which hung medals and insignias signifying how he worked hard to reach this position.
He has the singular distinction of being the youngest to be promoted to a star rank in both his class and age in 2017; he was the first general from the Philippine Military Academy (PMA) Class of 1989.
During the last flag ceremony of then PNP chief, Director General Ronald “Bato” de la Rosa, he awarded De Leon the “Medalya ng Kasanayan” (medal for skill) for his invaluable performance and innovative ideas as chief of the FEO.
De Leon occupies a unique post. While his mistahs and other key officers in the PNP might have been assigned to offices with either an investigation or operation function, for which they were educated in college or at the PMA, he was appointed to lead an agency that is regulatory in nature.
He clarified, “Our mandate is to regulate firearms and explosives.”
What De Leon made even clearer, as he spoke to the Daily Tribune staff who came to visit him in his Camp Crame office, was that “due to some innovations introduced by the erstwhile chief of the PNP, Sen. Panfilo Lacson, the payment of fees is made directly to the official government bank, the Land Bank of the Philippines.”
“All we have to do is process and to ensure that the requirements are submitted and that these requirements are authentic,” he said.
The FEO chief succeeded not only in controlling the rowdy human traffic at the lobby of this office but, more importantly, preventing corruption, simply by “introducing an online system through which the citizenry can apply for the two licenses, one for the person to own a firearm and the other for the firearm.”
He likened the two licenses, now required of those in possession of firearms, “to getting a driver’s license in the case of the license to own and possess a firearm and the car registration which is intended to register the firearm itself.”
He shared that the roadmap of the FEO today “is to ensure that the people can be reached by our services by making things easier for them and making things efficient for us.”
De Leon clarified, though, “We do not sacrifice strictness when it comes to those requirements.”
He explained, “Before, you had to go to the police for police clearance, then you went to the hospital service for a neuro test, to the crime laboratory for your drug test and then, you went to the finance service office for payment. After one week, you had to go back to these units of the PNP that are scattered all over Camp Crame to get the result. After getting the result, you submitted it to the Firearms and Explosive Office where you would jostle to find yourself in a tiny space among the unruly crowd and if you thought you could relax, no, because a fixer would approach you and whisper that he could ensure that your papers were on top of the pile.
“Today, we have a one-stop shop that houses these several units. But what about the other requirements? Do you still have to go the FEO and submit them? No more, because you just have to upload it, while this one-stop shop transmits your results to the FEO and your account,” he said.
“After several evaluations of the uploaded documents, along with my approval is a reference number. You will use the reference number when you go to LandBank to pay your fees.
Again, not to the FEO. No money stays with us. Instead, every amount collected by the LandBank goes straight to the Bureau of Treasury.”
To flesh out the value of the online system, he cited as an example: “The person who gets his requirements uploaded first gets served first. If you were the fifth to upload, your papers are processed fifth online. The computer will not attend to number 360 unless it has processed the requirements that came in first, including 357, 358 and 359.”
He also shared that there used to be fake neuro reports “because the person who was applying for the license used to get his own results and then pass them to FEO.”
“Today, you take the neuro-drug test and the crime lab will just tell the FEO if you passed it or not, if it’s a go or no-go. After all, we are not chemists to interpret the certification. You don’t need to talk to us. You don’t need to come to us because our services reach you online. And the details of your firearms are available in your account,” he added.
The innovations that De Leon introduced have earned for him plaudits. One Ateneo professor noted, “There used to be a long queue. FEO has been professionalized for the first time.”
Dante Jimenez, founding chairman of Volunteer Against Crime and Corruption (VACC) and now chair of the Presidential Anti-Corruption Commission, praised De Leon when Jimenez visited the agency and saw the improvements and instituted reforms. He noticed in particular the “absence of fixers at the lobby which was almost deserted.”
Ronnie Puno, former DILG secretary, told De Leon: “You have raised the bar of performance in this agency to international standards.”
Most amazed was Tessie Sy-Coson of SM Investments who asked if it was a holiday because there was no one at the lobby. Visibly impressed, she inquired about the strategies De Leon adopted to ensure efficiency while preventing corruption.
Many personalities, too, have come to submit themselves to a drug test, something that could have been achieved through “non-appearance” in the past.
The likes of former Ilocos Sur Gov. Chavit Singson and Environment Secretary Roy Cimatu chose to appear at FEO to take the appropriate test because they were impressed by what they heard De Leon had achieved so far.
The big fish was, of course, President Rodrigo Duterte, who also submitted himself to the neuro-drug test. “After the President went through the process, I told myself I had no reason to exempt anyone should anyone try to ask me for any special consideration. If the President himself was willing to undergo the appropriate test, I am sure to tell them, I believe everyone else should follow his example.”
Needless to say, the President was pleased with the reforms De Leon introduced.
Daily Tribune (DT): Tell us about your basic military education.
Valeriano de Leon (VL): I graduated from the Philippine Military Academy in 1989. On our diploma, what is stated is Bachelor of Science (General). So, there is no specific major. We had several trainings prior to graduation. When I graduated, I undertook several mandatory courses like basic, advanced and officers’ training courses. In between we had specialized courses like communications, psychological operations, intelligence, comptrollership, supply management and several others. My basic and advanced courses were in intelligence.
DT: Did you specialize in firearms and explosives? Or was it a general requirement?
VL: There are two core competencies in the Philippine National Police, namely, investigation and operations. I was assigned to the Criminal Investigation and Detection Group for 11 years. It provided my competence in investigation. I was also assigned to operations in several capacities, as the group director of the Regional Mobile Group in Region 2. In operations, I was the provincial director of Quezon Province.
I was directorate for operations for two to 1/2 years crafting some policies about standard operating procedure as adopted by the Philippine National Police.
DT: Why did you want to become a military man?
VL: It so happened that I grew up in a province in a big family. We were seven siblings and were prompted to apply for free scholarship grants. At the PMA, you will be given training, education and title without a single centavo coming from your family.
DT: But were there other military men in the family who inspired you?
VL: My eldest brother is also a PMAyer. He is a member of Class ’81. I also have a younger brother in the military. My mother’s brothers are also all PMAyers. General Cesar Templo of the Philippine Army, Commodore George Templo of the Philippine Navy and General Emiliano Templo of the Philippine Constabulary.
DT: So, it’s in your family to become generals?
VL: It’s probably incidental. We worked hard for it.
DT: Where are the De Leons from?
VL: We are from Tuguegarao. We were born and raised in Tuguegarao. My brother is now serving Davao City as the head of the Public Safety and Security Command Center.
DT: Would you have the data on the number of firearms in the country?
VL: We have roughly around 1.9 million.
DT: What kind of guns are these?
VL: They range from the smallest caliber to the highest caliber.
DT: Are there are a lot that are unaccounted for?
VL: There are unaccounted firearms because of the archipelagic nature of the country — we have a large coastal area — so they can be easily brought in from other countries. That is why there were amnesty drives in the past which provided owners to avail themselves of licensing. But these were on a limited scale. So, this was within a period.
DT: What is the main responsibility of the agency?
VL: The Firearms and Explosives Office is the sole regulatory office of firearms and explosives.
DT: What does regulatory mean?
VL: It means we implement rules and regulations as provided by our laws.
DT: What efforts are you engaged in to reach out to the people so they will know what they’re supposed to do?
VL: We have a continuing caravan to ensure that our stakeholders are being catered, and that we have some flyers. We have websites. We are coming out with a short video that will allow us to inform the public even in cinemas. We will have this in the near future.
DT: Tell us about the men and women who make up the office. Are you sufficient in terms of people’s qualifications?
VL: The Firearms and Explosives office is composed of non-uniformed personnel as well as uniformed personnel. We have quite a number of non-uniformed ones because of the past plantilla. Today we are trying to have a shift that they should be more competent in validating documents digitally. Before we were examining documents that go through the different levels of the command. Today, we have an online evaluation. So, a non-contact policy as a measure against corruption is being observed. That is our contribution to our beloved President’s anti-corruption program.
DT: What were your marching orders from the President? What did he tell you when you took your oath of office?
VL: The marching orders, through the head of the agency, General Ronald “Bato” de la Rosa, were: “Do your best in that agency. There are a lot of complaints against it. You make your services efficient.”
DT: What else is needed to be done as far as firearms and explosives are concerned?
VL: We need to update policies. In fact, we continue reviewing processes. We continue to streamline as instructed by the Commander-in-Chief. And we continue to update. There are legislators who constantly solicit our inputs to further improve the laws governing firearms.
DT: Do you continue to be a top-earner for the government?
VL: We are not an income-generating agency. We are not like the Bureau of Internal Revenue or the Bureau of Customs. If they do not collect efficiently, the government might not fully function as expected, because there has to be a means to run the government. So, our raising the money is incidental. In 2016, we collected an all-time high because it was an aggregate of the years 2014, 2015 and 2016. Logically and sensibly, we collected a lower amount in 2017.
DT: Do you also have something to do with the manufacturers of firearms?
VL: In the case of the manufacturing of firearms, it is the Secretary of the Interior and Local Government who ultimately approves the issuance of the licenses for the manufacturing of firearms. Our office only processes their application. Our responsibility is to ensure the authenticity, completeness and validity of the requirements that they submit. Then, we make the proper endorsement to the appropriate authorities.
DT: Do you have a development plan for the next five years? What is your foresight?
VL: We are looking at transacting business with our stakeholders without any contact. The President signed into law Republic Act 11032 which talks about the efficient delivery of government services. The zero-contact policy as a measure against corruption is our main effort today.
DT: It just occurred to me, what do you do on weekends? How do you unwind?
VL: Sometimes I just go walking. Sometimes I cannot refuse friends who invite me to their celebrations. Or I am with friends and we try out new restaurants.
DT: Aren’t you into sports?
VL: I am into sports. I’ve always played table tennis since I was a kid. I was also into basketball because I was once a varsity member.
DT: Do you have time for movies or reading?
VL: I watch movies when my children are in town. It’s a family thing. But when I want to watch an action movie, the DVD is good enough, so that I could dose off anytime.
DT: Where do you want this country to be as far as the functions of this agency are concerned?
VL: We’re looking at an ideal of having in our database the firearms proliferating in the country. It would be good if we have a database that could be easily retrieved. That is actually being done, but our problem is there are still a number of hard-headed individuals who insist on keeping their guns without an appropriate license to do so. Others have licenses, but once these expire, they no longer renew them.
DT: What is your Christmas wish for yourself?
VL: I wish that my given task, my contribution to fulfilling my mandate, be understood and supported by everyone, especially our stakeholders, especially because we are sincerely effecting transformation in the Firearms and Explosives Office.
DT: What is your Christmas wish for the FEO?
VL: That we all be in peace. That we all be safe. And that you just enjoy what you have because that is happiness. If you are constantly in search of something, and you want to have everything, you will never be happy. My wish is for each one to be contented with what he has.
DT: What do you want to tell the President of the Philippines?
VL: I salute President Duterte for all his programs, and I wish that he will have good health to carry out the programs Filipino citizens need. I believe it is providential that he should become our President because he is not the traditional politician. He might even dream of becoming unpopular in this country to ensure that his program of work be implemented for the good of the majority.
DT: What do you tell God when you pray to Him?
VL: I pray that each one would have an open attitude, and that each one would be generous, so that we would all be united and not be set apart by our differences. I believe that everybody should have the right to enjoy life and to enjoy living in this country.
DT: What is your Christmas wish for Filipinos?
VL: I wish for the Filipino people the same that of our beloved President Rodrigo Duterte wants: that we are a peaceful, secure and progressive nation.