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Brazil school massacre puts spotlight on gun violence, rising firearm sales

Brazil is considered the world's leader in deaths by firearms, fueling debate over gun laws following the Brazil school massacre Thursday that killed 12 students.

By Taylor Barnes and Sara Miller LlanaCorrespondent and staff writer / April 8, 2011

A man visits a makeshift memorial of twelve crosses representing each child killed the day before in a school shootout in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on Friday, April 8. Ten girls and two boys between the ages of 12 and 15 were gunned down Thursday by 23-year-old Wellington Oliveira, who shot and killed himself after being confronted by police.

Victor R. Caivano/AP

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Rio de Janeiro and Mexico City

Brazil is no stranger to urban mayhem, with street shootouts splashing the front pages of newspapers each day in the nation that tops the world in deaths by firearms.

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But Thursday's massacre of 12 children at school in western Rio de Janeiro has touched a nerve in this hardened nation. As families hold burial services today, Brazil is asking how such violence more associated with the United States became a reality here.

As happened following the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre and the 1999 Columbine high school killings, the worst school shooting in Brazilian history is sparking debate on gun ownership laws. Already, those favoring Brazil’s right to own firearms have fought to distinguish law from tragedy, while others have lamented that a 2005 referendum failed to ban gun sales to civilians.

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João Luiz, the pastor of a Presbyterian church facing the school, says he regrets the 2005 vote.

“To my surprise, the people said 'yes, the citizen has a right to arms.' I really lament that,” he says after accompanying his parishioners in identifying the body of their young daughter killed in Thursday’s massacre. Voting in favor of such a measure, he adds, means that in a way “you are contributing to a tragedy like this.”

The massacre began when former student Wellington Oliveira, 23, walked into the Tasso da Silveira school, which serves grades one through eight, and opened fire at about 8:30 a.m. He killed 10 girls and two boys between the ages of 12 and 15 and injured several others before shooting himself after police surrounded him.

The nation reacted with shock and remorse. “I ask for one minute of silence for these children who were taken so early from their life,” Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff said. “It's not in the nature of our nation to have these types of crimes.”

Finger-pointing begins

While the shooter left a letter, it did not clearly lay out his motive. The gun lobby in the national congress immediately went on the defensive, saying the incident was unrelated to the nation’s gun laws. The city of Rio's firearm death rate actually dropped from a high of 50.4 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2003 to 33.6 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2007, according to numbers from the Brazilian government.

“What is the relation between the right of people to acquire an arm within the law and this that happened? I doubt the gunman bought [the guns he used] legally,” Congressman Ônyx Lorenzoni, a leader in the gun rights movement, said to local media. “I will fight so that this doesn’t lead to a person being prohibited from having the right to have an arm to defend their family and property."

On the other side of the argument, Minister of Justice José Eduardo Cardozo and lower house speaker Marco Maia both said the school incident should renew the debate over disarmament.

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