Chocolates for guns? Brazil targets gun violence

A June ban on gun ownership in Rio triggers a federal push for a wider ban next month.

Activists in Rio, one of the world's most violent cities, have been waging a high-profile campaign in recent months to turn Brazil into a world champion of gun control.

Volunteers in T-shirts with "Rio, Put Down That Gun" logos ask pedestrians to sign petitions to shut down legal gun dealers; churches collect arms that are later destroyed; children are given chocolates in exchange for toy guns; and students debate the issue as part of a school curriculum called "education for peace."

"This campaign is about sending a message to our national Congress," says Rubem Csar Fernandes, executive secretary of Viva Rio, a nongovernmental agency that studies urban crime. "We don't have as many guns as the United States, but we use them more."

In June, the Rio de Janeiro state government passed one of the world's toughest gun laws, banning arms and ammunition sales to anyone but police, military, and private security forces. It prompted the federal government to propose a similar law.

Political observers here say the radical step is a plea for Congress to curb Brazil's enormous illegal gun market - an estimated 20 million arms of which only 1.5 million are registered - and high homicide rate. In Brazil, 25.78 per 100,000 people die by guns, a higher rate than any other nation at peace except South Africa. In comparison, 6.24 per 100,000 Americans die from gunshot wounds, and just 0.60 per 100,000 Japanese, according to a 1997 United Nations report.

Confronting crime

For Rio officials, a gun ban is also a desperate attempt to stem out-of-control violent crime.

Motorists are frequently held up at gunpoint at traffic signals. Public shootouts between police and rival drug gangs or other criminals are common. The Roman Catholic Church here recently released a survival handbook with suggestions such as: "If you find yourself in the middle of a shootout, duck behind the closest structure."

In 1998, Rio registered 5,741 homicides, or 39.8 per 100,000 compared to just 6.1 per 100,000 in New York. "We are practically in a civil war," says Luciana Phebo, a researcher who analyzes violence for the Institute for Religious Studies in Rio.

So Paulo state recently launched its own "I Am for Peace" campaign, and President Fernando Henrique Cardoso proposed a similar gun-control law that would not only ban sales but give all civilians who own arms legally a year to turn them in. If the president's bill passes, it would place Brazil with England and Australia as nations with the most stringent gun-control laws.

This has put the nation's gun manufacturers have gone on the offensive. "The policy of banning the sale and possession of guns is a way for a government sinking at the polls to improve its popularity, and not its citizens' security," Antnio Marcos Moraes Barros, president of the Companhia de Cartucho Brasileira arms manufacturing company, recently told reporters.

According to a poll by Datafolha in So Paulo, 77 percent of Brazilians favor gun owners turning in their guns, while 59 percent favor banning gun and ammunition sales.

Exporters balk

Brazil is the world's fourth leading gun manufacturer, trailing the US, Austria, and Germany. Last year, the industry earned $138 million in domestically and exported $70 million.

Brazil is also the second leading exporter of revolvers to the US, with Taurus, Brazil's leading gun manufacturer, controlling 30 percent of the light arms market. Just this year, four cities, including Miami; Chicago; Newark, N. J.; and Bridgeport, Conn., filed a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against Taurus and its US subsidiary to recover expenses for disturbances caused by guns.

The anti-arms campaign spurred Taurus and other domestic arms manufacturers to create the nation's first gun lobby, the National Association of Gun Owners and Merchants (ANPCA). The group includes gun collectors, hunters, and several dozen politicians from Rio Grande do Sul, the southernmost state, where Taurus has its corporate headquarters and employs thousands of workers.

"It's going to be a tough fight to pass the gun control bill," says Congressman Jos Genono, who supports the proposed legislation. "The arms manufacturers' lobby is very strong."

ANPCA literature points out that Brazil's police force is ill equipped to protect society and that a gun ban would not only leave most citizens at the mercy of criminals but increase black-market trade.

"If we had an effective police force, we could consider disarming the population," says Congressman Enio Bacci, who represents Rio Grande do Sul state. "But this ban would encourage criminals and turn the government into an accomplice."

Mr. Bacci says the Cardoso administration does not have enough congressional support to pass its bill. "In the future, perhaps we can ban guns and become another England," he says. "But right now, we are far from it."

Viva Rio's Fernandes, however, remains hopeful, saying the law could be watered down to barring gun sales in cities of more than 200,000.

"We may not be able to control behavior, but I know we can reduce violence by controlling the gun trade," he says.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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