A decade after Brazil tightened rules on weapons sales and two years after a lone gunman shot 12 people dead at a Rio de Janeiro school, Brazil’s Congress is trying to loosen legislation on gun ownership that critics say could cause the number of homicides to rise sharply after a period of relative stability.
The number of homicides in South America’s largest nation fell by 2,000 in 2004, the first such fall in 12 years, thanks largely to the Disarmament Statute, legislation that made it harder to buy guns and slapped tougher penalties on those caught in possession. The number of gun deaths fell by a similar amount the year after, as well, Brazil's Justice Ministry said.
However, with the government focused more on growth and infrastructure issues and preparing the country to host the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics, gun control has ceased to be a priority says Antonio Rangel, a researcher who coordinates the Arms Control Project at Viva Rio, a well-known nongovernmental organization.
“Disarmament has ceased to be a priority for the government; and with crime rising again, there has been an increase in the number of homicides caused by weapons,” Mr. Rangel says, adding that there is less violence now than before the statute was passed in 2003.
The Workers’ Party government leads a majority coalition in Congress but its lukewarm position has encouraged lawmakers opposing gun restrictions – many of whom were elected with financial support from weapons or ammunition manufacturers, Rangel says.
“The statute is being destroyed by a minority of parliamentarians," he says. “There are more than 40 pieces of legislation [aimed at weakening] the statute waiting to be voted on, including one that abolishes it altogether.”
One law that would allow prison guards to carry guns when off duty was vetoed by President Dilma Rousseff earlier this year. Others are expected to be voted upon in the coming months.
Brazil's gun debate
Brazil has a powerful arms lobby with some of the region’s biggest gun and ammunition manufacturers. As in the United States, individual freedoms are highly prized and guns are considered a necessity in many rural parts of this vast nation.
The spirited nationwide debate that took place before a separate 2005 referendum on gun control – when 64 percent of Brazilians voted against a total ban on weapons sales – has receded. More Brazilians say they feel safer now than a decade ago, polls show.
Proponents of looser legislation say the number of homicides remains absurdly high and contend the statute has made little difference to most Brazilians. They have mobilized their forces, convincing more than 50,000 people to call or e-mail in support of just one of the bills that, if approved, would roll back some of the restrictions.
“Citizens can’t exercise their legal right to buy a gun that they won in the referendum because [the government has] made it so difficult,” says Salesio Nuhs, the vice-president of Aniam, the National Association of Arms and Ammunition Industries. “So there is a clamor to bring reality in line with public opinion.”
The Disarmament Statute was a landmark piece of legislation for Brazil, a country known almost as much for bloodshed as for its beaches and soccer.
But while violence in big cities such as Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo has fallen since 2003, it has increased elsewhere, particularly in the poorer north and northeast. The gun lobby believes that it's because law enforcement officers are poorly trained and because the state authorities that oversee policing lack effective policies to fight crime.
But their opponents say the reason is guns.
The number of weapons sold annually fell in the six years following the approval of the Disarmament Statute from 57,000 to 37,000, says Daniel Cerqueira, author of a government-sponsored study on the statute’s effects.
Mr. Cerqueira says areas with more guns are more likely to see more violent deaths but he stressed that those numbers must be treated with caution as the presence of guns alone is not a direct indicator of violence.
“It is a highly suggestive relationship but it doesn’t prove anything,” Cerqueira says. “There are other factors. It could be that people arm themselves to be safe.”
Opponents of the statute say the law is so poorly designed that it encourages citizens to flout it. Anyone buying a gun must not only explain why they want one – a subjective issue – they must also register it with the country’s federal police, a process that is expensive, slow, and bureaucratic.
“How can you think that someone who is barely literate and who lives in a riverside community 400 km (248 miles) from the nearest Federal Police office is going to stay within the law,” asked Bene Barbosa, president of Movimento Vivo Brasil, a pro-gun group. “He’s not! And when he buys ammunition he gets it on the black market.”
Statistics bear that out. Of the 9 million guns registered with federal authorities in the 1990s only 1.6 million were re-registered in the years following the disarmament statute. Under the stature, gun owners are required to re-register their weapons every three years.
'Easier and less bureaucratic'
All told, there are 15.2 million guns in circulation, 3.8 million of them in the hands of criminals, according to estimates cited in the 2013 Violence Map, a government-backed study of where and how violence takes place in Brazil.
Mr. Nuhs says Aniam has offered to help the government by allowing registration to take place in their own shops, each of which must undergo vetting by federal authorities and whose stocks are linked to the military’s own computers.
He says only 6 percent of total ammunition sales go to gun shops and even then individuals can only buy 50 bullets or cartridges a year. Almost a quarter of all ammo produced in Brazil goes to the military and law enforcement corps, and 45 percent is exported.
“It’s almost impossible to buy a gun in Brazil today,” Nuhs says. “I am not against regulation. I just want the process to be easier and less bureaucratic.”