Brazilians to Vote on Ban on Sale of Legal Firearms

(International Relations and Security Network, 21/10/2005)


In a national referendum set for Sunday, 120 million Brazilians are expected to vote in the region's first-ever public decision to ban the sale of firearms and ammunition to private citizens in this South American country that leads the world in gun deaths.


For supporters of the ban, the referendum is a long-overdue measure to reduce violence. For the opponents, the ban is unnecessary and represents a dangerous step towards Fascism. But both sides agree that something must be done about violent crime in Brazil.


A "yes" vote in the upcoming referendum would also be a vote in support of the country's public security sector. A "no" vote would indicate that Brazilians believe they must take personal protection into their own hands, retaining what many consider an indisputable right.


The Disarmament Statute and Citizen Disarmament


Over 100 people a day were shot dead in Brazil in 2003. Last year, over 36,000 people died firearm-related deaths, down from some 39,000 the year before. This reduction has been directly tied to the disarmament campaign that formed a central part of the implementation phase of a Disarmament Statute that entered into force last year.


The disarmament campaign moved from media battles to actual activity in the form of a nation-wide gun buy-back program when the Disarmament Statute entered into force on 19 July 2004. Any citizen in possession of a firearm could deliver the weapon to the federal police and receive a cash reward.


A pistol was worth US$33, a rifle or shotgun US$66, and an automatic weapon US$100. Participants also received amnesty if the weapon was illegally owned - an important clause since many personal firearms in Brazil are illegal.


With minimum wage at less than a dollar a day in Brazil and unemployment consistently superceding 10 per cent, a firearm sold for more than you might earn in a month is an attractive option.


Within six weeks after its inauguration, journalists, academics, and others predicted the disarmament campaign would double the government's original estimate of 150,000 to 180,000 purchased firearms. Fernando Segovia, Commissioner of the National Arms Service of the Federal Police, expected the original number to more than triple.


Throughout Brazil, federal police were taking in firearms by the dozens. Over 50,000 were collected in the first month, an average of 1,821 a day compared to the 13,000 seized in all of 2003. Brazilians have delivered police over 450,000 guns to date, taking a small chunk out of the millions of weapons in circulation.


Nearly 95 per cent of the arms that criminals use were made in Brazil. Many were purchased for legal purposes but eventually found their way into criminal hands through theft or other means. "The idea [was] to reduce the number of guns in society so there are fewer available to criminals," Segovia told ISN Security Watch.


"Many guns used by criminals [in Rio de Janeiro] are made here in Brazil and illegally owned by citizens," Marcelo Itagiba, secretary of public security for Rio de Janeiro, told ISN Security Watch. "The disarmament campaign helps us do our job by reducing the number of guns in illegal circulation that are widely available to members of organized crime here," he added.


The gun buy-back program operated on the premise that there is a strong cause-and-effect link between disarmament and a reduction in violence. This link has been further strengthened by statistics kept by Brazil's federal police that reveal that firearm-related deaths have dropped for the first time in years.


"In 1992, there were some 16,000 people killed by firearms, and over the following years this number increased by 10 per cent annually," Segovia said. "We arrived at 39,000 deaths in 2003, and in the first year of the [disarmament] campaign we saw 3,234 fewer firearm related deaths," he said.


Segovia argues that this finding is an example of how a lack of control of the guns held by private citizens contributes to an increase in violence in Brazil.


Trust in public security


Ask anyone in Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo, Salvador de Bahia, Fortaleza, or other urban centers in Brazil about the military police and they are likely to paint a picture of corruption, malfeasance, and ruin. In the city of Rio de Janeiro, the military police face an uphill battle against criminal gangs that many consider a parallel power.


Organized criminal gangs, such as the Commando Vermelho (Red Command), earn more money in a few months from the drug trade than the annual state police budget. These gangs have an endless source of adolescents willing to take up arms to defend their community and their boss' slice of the trade. Bribery ensures dozens of political strings to pull.


These criminal gangs are well entrenched and are considered to have control over 700 of Rio's 800-plus shantytowns. It will be years before the political will surges high enough to promote, legalize, and implement a long-term solution to removing organized crime from the hills of that city.


Why, then, would citizens of Rio de Janeiro join millions of other Brazilians to strip themselves of the right to purchase firearms?


The connection between the criminal use of firearms and the legal sources of these firearms is strong enough to convince many Brazilians that by removing the number of legal arms in circulation, they will reduce the size of the principle source of weapons used by criminals to perpetuate their urban guerrilla war and other crimes against individuals.


A study undertaken by the Secretary of Public Security of the state of Rio de Janeiro, released in September researched the origin of 86,849 firearms seized by Brazilian police since April 1999. By using information associated with the serial numbers on each individual weapon observed, researchers concluded that 65 per cent of the arms associated with criminal activities were registered to private citizens.


This finding suggests that most of the arms used by criminals in Brazil were once owned by law-abiding private citizens.


That fact has been widely publicized by the lobby for a "yes" vote. It is a striking finding that has convinced many Brazilians that despite their inherent distrust of the country's public security system, the power to reduce crime lies within their decision to own a gun or not.


Arguments against the ban


Nazi Germany banned the ownership of guns for private citizens in 1938. This fact has been seized upon by the pro-"no" vote media campaign. One popular message states: "Those who want disarmament raise your right hand," referring to the well known Nazi salute.


Alberto Fraga, a Brazilian legislator heading the campaign against the ban, is worried that the Brazilian government is not investing enough in security. "The population is unprotected, left at the mercy of armed thugs, while the government is not investing in security," he said, adding, "This vote does not disarm the criminals."


The point that Brazil's disarmament campaign cannot disarm criminals has resounded since the campaign began last year.


Those against the ban are also worried that disarmament will spur the growth of the black market trade of weapons. This is a serious problem in Brazil often linked to levels of organized crime in the Paraguayan city of Ciudad del Este, just across the river from the Brazilian city of Foz do Iguacu in Brazil's southern Parana state.


Others point out that Brazil's gun control laws, tightened in 2003 with the Disarmament Statute, were already very strict. They now require psychological and gun handling tests and a clean criminal record. Registration fees for the weapons are prohibitively high, so most Brazilians can't afford to legally own a weapon. Those against the ban argue that the current law is strong enough and that there is no need to remove the option of firearm sales for citizens.


Finally, many analysts argue that the ban draws a distinction between legal and illegal weapons. They conclude that this point is irrelevant because all illegal weapons start out in the legitimate market before slipping into the hands of criminals.


If the ban passes, the largest source of weapons used by criminals will begin to dry up, forcing them to rely more heavily on the other commonly known source: corrupt cops who sell weapons from stockpiles of previously seized weapons. This is a very real reality - one that brings to a head perhaps the most sensitive argument surrounding this debate: Is public security a public good?


The privatization of security


If public security is a public service, then citizens rely on police to protect them. If security is privatized, then citizens will turn to private security companies, bodyguards, bullet proof windows, and personal side arms to protect themselves.


Those with the means to protect themselves from violence currently buy what is necessary to protect themselves at a personal level. Yet, Brazil is a country where much wealth is held in the hands of an extreme few. The privatization of security would contribute to the levels of inequality between rich and poor and an outcome that could lead Brazil in the direction of greater inequality and social injustice, not security.


Another side effect of the privatization of security is a position against the public security sector. Brazil's public security sector faces many challenges and is in dire need of fundamental reform. The privatization of security would place more pressure on cops to collaborate with criminals to sell weapons. It would erode any chance for cops, on the line between accepting a bribe and honorable duty, to make the tough decision not to take a bribe.


Some 40,000 weapons were stolen in Brazil in 2003, and a weapon was stolen every five hours in Rio de Janeiro.


"Violence in Brazil is an epidemic spread by the massive access to and use of firearms," Josephine Bourgois, researcher for the Small Arms Control Project of Viva Rio, an anti-violence NGO based in Rio de Janeiro, told ISN Security Watch.


If security is a public good, then safety is a right for all, not just those with the wealth to afford it. Protection of citizens is the duty of the state, not individual citizens. If Brazilians vote on Sunday to ban the sale of weapons, they will forego their most direct route to self-defense, while at the same time reducing a major source of weapons in the criminal world. They will also give a significant vote of confidence to the nation's public security sector, a mandate that could lead to increased political will for reforms.


A vote not to ban the sale of weapons will take Brazil down the path of privatized security. It is a path that leads to increased corruption in the public security sector. A "no" vote will also put a price on personal security in a country where most citizens earn less than a dollar a day and cannot afford to buy a gun for personal protection, independent of whether it is legal or illegal.