Is Bogota's gun ban responsible for a drop in homicides?

If a new gun ban in Colombia's capital is linked to a drop in the murder rate, it could potentially serve as a model for the rest of Latin America, writes guest blogger Geoffrey Ramsey.

Fernando Vergara/AP/File
In this file photo, Gustavo Petro speaks to supporters after winning Bogota's mayoral race in Bogota, Colombia.

A version of this post ran on the author's blog, insightcrime.org. The views expressed are the author's own.

The city of Bogota has seen a significant reduction in homicides after passing a ban on carrying guns. If the two developments prove to be related, the ban could provide a model to other violence-plagued cities in the region.

On February 1, newly-elected Bogota mayor Gustavo Petro introduced a three-month ban on carrying guns in public, saying that to carry a weapon represented “not a defense mechanism, but a risk.” On April 30, Petro declared that the ban had been a success, and had contributed to a 31 percent drop in homicides when compared to the first four months of 2011. April in particular saw a particularly large drop in homicides, and with only 96 murders reported, was the most peaceful April on record in 15 years. Because of this, Petro and local army officials (the military is responsible for gun regulation in the country) announced that the ban would be extended for three more months.

If the ban continues to see success, it may prove permanent. Petro has expressed interest in this, and says that he wants to change the attitude of Colombians towards weapons, in order to “generate a culture of tolerance and love."

At first glance, the gun ban and corresponding drop in homicides seems to provide a compelling model for cities elsewhere in the region. As a report recently published by the Inter-American Dialogue noted, most of Latin America’s homicides are concentrated in urban areas. Indeed, access to weapons has been cited by some commentators – including InSight Crime – as one of the main drivers of violence in Caracas, especially among poor youths in the city’s slums. If restricting the bearing of firearms had so much success in Bogota, why not export it to other violent hotspots in the hemisphere, like Caracas, Rio de Janeiro, or San Pedro Sula?

The fact is, however, that there are a number of other factors that could have played into the city’s reduction in homicides. Bogota was the first site of a new national urban security initiative launched last year, known as “Plan Cuadrantes,” which was designed to divide cities into as many as several hundred sectors, each manned by a police base. According to National Police officials, Plan Cuadrantes encourages ties to the community by focusing efforts on block-by-block policing. While acknowledging the impact of the gun ban, Bogota police credit the implementation of Plan Cuadrantes with lowering crime in the capital city.

Another factor which likely played into the reduction in violence were the June 2011 changes made to Bogota’s liquor laws under the previous acting mayor, Clara Lopez Obregon. The new code made it illegal to sell alcoholic beverages in liquor stores, grocery stores, and corner shops after 11 p.m., and banned the public consumption of alcohol after that time. The move is believed to have cut down on violent confrontations, as around 90 percent of reported conflicts registered in 2010 involved some degree of alcohol use.

In addition to these other explanations, it is simply too early to call the gun ban a success. A 31 percent drop over four months, after all, is hardly conclusive evidence that the policy has made an impact on violence in Bogota. Homicide rates are also falling in Colombia’s other major cities of Medellin and Cali, suggesting that this may be a nationwide trend, possibly related to the country’s long-term decline in unemployment.

Because Petro himself is a former guerrilla who laid down his weapons to participate in conventional politics, the gun ban is an attractive narrative, but there is simply not enough hard evidence to back his assertion that it has made an impact on violence. Indeed, attempts to concretely link the availability of weapons with homicide rates elsewhere in Latin America have proved to be problematic, meaning that at the very least a degree of skepticism is necessary before hailing Bogota’s gun ban as a policy model for reining in security in the region.

--- Geoffrey Ramsey  is a writer for Insight – Organized Crime in the Americas, which provides research, analysis, and investigation of the criminal world throughout the region. Find all of his research here.

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