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.
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.
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.”
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."
The school shooting will likely intensify an ongoing gun debate in Brazil, says William Godnick, coordinator for the public security program at the United Nations Center for Peace Disarmament and Development in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Gun laws among world's strictest
His doctoral research found that violence in Brazil grew steadily at the end of the last decade, with the firearm death rate growing threefold from 1982 to 2002, to 31 per 100,000 inhabitants. A growing social movement of activists and politicians pushed Brazil to pass a 2003 statute that ranks among the world’s strictest national firearms laws.
Today a gun owner must be older than 25 to legally possess arms and also must pass a series of tough background checks.
Still, anti-gun advocates sought to take restrictions even further by banning sales to civilians. Placed to voters in 2005, the referendum failed with 64 percent voting in favor of continued sales, in part because of the argument that guns were needed for personal safety.
Today firearms sales are flourishing. A recent report by the state news service Agência Brasil showed that the number of firearms sold in the country had grown 70 percent since the referendum, from 68,000 in 2005 to nearly 117,000 in 2009.
An estimated half of the 16 million guns in Brazil are thought to be unregistered, according to a December report by the Rio de Janeiro nongovernmental organization Viva Rio, which played a leading roll in tougher gun legislation, and the Justice Ministry. The report says that Brazil is the “world champion” in absolute numbers of deaths by firearms each year.
According to a 2010 analysis by Brazil’s National Confederation of Municipalities, more than 70 percent of Brazil’s murders in 2008 were committed with a firearm, reaching about 35,000.
One of world's most-violent nations
As the country mourns, pro-disarmament activists see this as a time to put the 2003 statute, which in theory is a strong gun law, into better practice.
“Like any law it is not enough to be written. It has to be implemented. … This case that happened exactly puts this question [on the agenda again],” says Melina Risso, director of the Sou de Paz institute in São Paulo. She notes that the statute in itself applied in vigor would reduce the number of arms on the street, since it requires re-registration of arms in case they go missing.
Considering at least 7 million weapons are already legally registered, she says. “It’s already a great arsenal for a country like ours that has a prohibition on a civilian walking armed.”
Brazil’s murder rate already puts it in the top 5 percent of the most violent countries in the world, notes Leandro Piquet Carneiro of the University of São Paulo in his 2010 study on illicit markets and public safety. With a 2010 homicide rate of about 27 per 100,000 residents, Brazil is three times the global average.
Without coming out in support of gun control, an editorial in the leading Rio de Janeiro daily O Globo said the event “calls attention” to the debate: “The country is weeping with sadness. But let’s hope that from the suffering there comes the lesson of seeing the crime in Realengo not as an isolated happening, but an alert for the public authorities to improve their instruments of prevention of any type of violence.”