In Argentina, fear feeds gun sales

Gun stores report a 50 percent increase in sales since December, as citizens respond to increased crime.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Fernando Janeiro fetches a short-barrelled, stockless shotgun from the shelf, breaks the barrel, and hands it to a potential customer. Mr. Janeiro has little need for a fancy sales pitch, as the weapons are selling themselves. "The doors have barely closed when the next customer walks in," he says.

La Veneziana is one of the most august hunting stores in Buenos Aires. It has provided Argentina's discerning elite with firearms, handguns, and hunting accessories since 1912, and its wood-pannelled walls are lined with antlers and faded photos of long-ago hunts.

These days, however, customers are spurning hunting rifles in favor of short-range weapons designed to inflict maximum damage at minimum range.

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"Clients who once limited themselves to hunting or target-shooting are now buying weapons for self-defense," says Janeiro. "People are afraid, and they want something that makes them feel safe."

Accurate figures are hard to find, but some gun stores report a 50 percent increase in sales since December, when Argentina's economic chaos boiled over into bloody riots that left 27 dead. Shooting clubs, too, report a notable increase in both inquiries and the sale of weapons for personal security since December. To complicate matters, Argentina's economic crisis shows no sign of abating, either. The central bank has announced an indefinite suspension of all banking and currency-exchange operations.

Argentines blame the rising tide of concern on a number of factors, from the country's visible poverty and rampant drug use, to corruption in the police force and sentencing restrictions on juvenile criminals.

Once one of the safest countries in Latin America, Argentina is now gripped by fears of rising crime. The federal police say 22,000 armed robberies have occurred this year in the capital alone, roughly equal to the same period last year. But officers say that juvenile crime, which often goes unreported, has rocketed, and that criminals have adopted an unprecedented level of violence.

"Every criminal now has a gun," says Daniel Rodríguez, chief spokesman for Argentina's federal police. "Every criminal is prepared to kill."

Between January and March, 33 police officers died in shoot-outs in the capital, compared with 55 for the whole of 2001. Argentina's parliament has debated public security issues, but there are few quick fixes.

A wave of kidnappings – previously unknown in Argentina – has hit the country. Christian Riquelme, the 17-year-old brother of Boca Juniors' soccer star player Juan Roman, was kidnapped earlier this month and released a day later after his family agreed to pay a $160,000 ransom.

THE culture of gun ownership has long been ingrained in Argentina, particularly in rural areas, where landowners and gauchos, Argentina's cowboys, control vast cattle herds in often difficult terrain. Owning a gun or a knife is often considered a sign of masculinity in Argentina.

As a result, Argentina's laws on gun ownership are more relaxed than elsewhere in Latin America. Permit applicants are required to pass a series of proficiency, medical, and safety tests, but most ordinary citizens can obtain a permit in 10 days.

In Mexico, by contrast, weapon ownership is strictly controlled. "Getting hold of a gun legally is just very difficult here," says Mark Carlson, managing director in Mexico for Control Risks, an international security consultancy. "We've experienced a sharp and visible increase in the use of weapons by criminals, but security companies have responded by marketing armored cars to mid-level managers instead."

The Argentine government has struggled to find answers to rising crime. With tax revenues plummeting, it has scant resources to put more police officers on the streets. Furthermore, many Argentines are distrustful of the police, mindful of their part in the bloody repression carried out during the 1976-83 military dictatorship.

"There used to be a time when the police would set up random road blocks to catch criminals, or search for weapons," says Carlos Ronco, director of Figyl Security, a private security firm. "But that was during the military government. Those times have passed."

Until the early 1990s, sales of small-caliber weapons were not registered, and many remain in circulation. Officials say many illegal weapons used during civil strife in the 1970s are still in use, along with guns stolen more recently from private homes or police.

Some military weapons are also known to be in circulation, after it was revealed that many disaffected conscripts sold their weapons illegally after the 1982 Falklands war against Britain.

"Argentina is awash with guns," says Ricardo Torterolo, director of the Club de Tiro Independencia, one of the city's most respected shooting clubs. "There are hundreds of thousands of unregistered weapons in circulation. Almost every family has access to a weapon of some kind."

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