In a global first, Brazilians voting on banning gun sales

Brazil ranked second only to Venezuela in homicide rates in 2003.

The debate over gun control is entering uncharted waters in Brazil, where for the first time anywhere in the world, a proposed ban on gun sales will be put directly to voters.

Sunday's referendum follows an ambitious gun buyback scheme last year that prompted people to turn in more than 420,000 weapons ranging from antique rifles to semiautomatic assault weapons. Gun homicides fell by 8 percent the following year, marking the first drop in 13 years, according to Brazil's Health Ministry.

That's a welcome development in a country that saw nearly four times as many gun deaths as the United States in 2003, despite Brazil's smaller population.

But like the US, the gun culture is deeply ingrained here, as is a wariness to relinquish individual rights. By portraying the ban as an erosion of liberty and a blow to the ability of the law-abiding to defend themselves, opponents of the ban have gained momentum with the help of a US gun-rights group worried about the precedent a ban would set.

More than 70 percent of those polled in August said they would vote for the ban, but results released last week showed that those planning to vote no, nao in Portuguese, had shot up - especially among the well-off and best educated. Less than two weeks before the final vote, Brazil's well-known polling firm Ibope released a poll saying the Naos were leading 49 percent to 45 percent.

While governments have banned gun sales before, putting the question directly to voters is new. The idea originated in 2003 when Brazil's Congress passed a bill called the Disarmament Statute. The same bill that prompted the buyback program a few months later prohibited weapons sales to all but law enforcement, hunters, and collectors, and forced those allowed to buy guns to take a series of tests and pay hefty registration rates. Brazil's gun lobby, which boasts two of the world's biggest weapons suppliers in Taurus and ammunition maker CBC, reacted by forcing lawmakers to agree to a referendum on the issue.

The Sim, or yes, campaign does not claim that the ban would disarm the country's criminals or that the drug-related warfare that ravages poor communities will end. Rather, activists argue that fewer guns means fewer deaths and that the vast majority of Brazil's122 million people will be safer. Already, more than 3,000 lives have been saved since the Disarmament Statute was passed, says Raul Jungmann, a Sim campaigner.

"In just two years the campaign for disarmament and the ban on carrying weapons has saved the lives of thousands of people who would have died for inane reasons like road rage, quarrels with neighbors, marital fights, etc," he says.

Mr. Jungmann and other SIM campaigners have a ream of statistics showing how the 17.5 million guns estimated to be circulating here helped lift the national homicide rate to 21.7 per 100,000 in the year before the reforms took effect, a rate second only to Venezuela, according to UNESCO. (The homicide rate in the US is 10.3 per 100,000, according to the same study.)

However, figures sketching out the violence have also provided ammunition for the bill's opponents. Campaigners for the Nao vote say that the level of violence in the country shows the ineffectiveness of police, and demonstrates the need for people to protect themselves from gun-toting thugs. They have hammered home the message that law-abiding citizens should not have to give up their fundamental right to own a weapon.

"If the campaign to prohibit the commercial sale of arms wins, then it is the average citizen, the decent man, who will lose the right to defend himself and protect his family and his property," says Luiz Antonio Fleury, one of the leaders of the Nao campaign.

Thanks to an aggressive - and savvy - media campaign with catchy Internet and television ads, those arguments have hit home in recent weeks. In one TV spot, a camera pans to a man standing behind the barred door of his house while a voiceover says that decent citizens are forced to take refuge in their own homes because the bandits have the guns. Another tactic that got people's attention was a fake story circulated on the Internet saying that a drug gang in Rio was giving money to the Sim campaign - implying that the bandits want people disarmed.

The Nao campaign has given many Brazilians second thoughts. "I don't use a gun and if I vote yes it is because I am against guns. But the Nao campaign has prompted a lot of doubts - they want us to think that he who has a gun can fight back," says taxi driver Carlos Geronimo de Souza. "I still don't know how to cast my vote."

The Nao campaign received help from the National Rifle Association, the premier anti-gun-control group in the US. Andrew Arulanandam, director of public affairs for the NRA, says his group had not given money to the Brazilian Nao campaign but that "some counsel had been given."

"Because of our charter we are involved in issues that happen only on the domestic front," Mr. Arulanandam says. "We are concerned about what is happening down in Brazil because we believe - and the gun control movement admits this - that they are using that country as a beachhead in trying to enact worldwide gun control and the ultimate target in the USA."

Josephine Bourgois, a researcher for Viva Rio, a nongovernmental organization involved in the Sim campaign, decries the quality of the debate. "The battle is not being won by scientific data or common sense but by money. This is a marketing campaign."

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