Photo: Antonio Grosz
Brazil’s polemic gun debate sounds a lot like America’s

Photo: Antonio Grosz

Ten days after a 14-year-old student opened fire on his classmates, students in the city of Goiania returned to their school. Inspired by school massacres at Columbine in Colorado and Realengo in Brazil, the student had taken his mother’s personal firearm from home. Four students were injured, and two were killed. But while mass shootings in the U.S. provoke debates around the right to bear arms, the conversation in Brazil turned to bullying instead.

Unspoken support for gun possession seems to be growing in Brazil. Congress is currently considering a series of measures that would loosen restrictions on gun ownership and conceal-and-carry laws. To gather “evidence” of public opinion on the loosening of gun laws, the Senate conducted a poll on its website. Nearly a quarter of a million people voted in favor of revoking the current legislation, which is known as the “Disarmament Statute.” Critics maintain that the poll oversimplifies the issues at stake – not to mention that an online poll has absolutely no scientific validity.

“In Brazil, we have a fearful society where people do not believe in institutions or in police, where people don’t see the state providing public security,” Daniel Cerqueira, a senior researcher at the Institute for Applied Economics, told The Brazilian Report. “One of the central factors behind this argument’s popularity is exactly that: fear.”

</p> <p>The latest statistics do little to alleviate public fear. Seven people are killed every hour in Brazil, according to current research from the Brazilian Forum for Public Security (FBSP). The latest report is the most lethal in the FBSP’s annual catalog, with <a href="https://brazilian.report/2017/10/31/brazil-abandoned-public-safety/">61,619 intentional violent deaths</a> recorded in 2016.</p> <p>On October 26, President Michel Temer <a href="https://oglobo.globo.com/rio/temer-sanciona-projeto-que-torna-crime-hediondo-posse-ilegal-de-armas-como-fuzis-21997714">sanctioned</a> a proposal to turn the possession of machine guns into a ‘heinous crime’ – the most serious kind under Brazilian law, as it grants no right to post bail. But other legislative proposals, still being debated, would make it significantly easier to legally possess a firearm. Unlike the U.S., Brazil’s Constitution never granted the <a href="https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2017/10/12/16418524/us-gun-policy-nra">inalienable right</a> to bear arms and has more stringent controls in place regarding personal gun possession.</p> <p>But according to Ivan Marques, director of Instituto Sou de Paz, Brazil’s gun legislation has suffered attacks since its introduction in the early 2000s. Now, he says, a <a href="https://brazilian.report/2017/10/31/2018-election-brazil-extreme-right/">lobby known as the ‘bullet caucus’</a> is gaining ground in its push for legislative change, attacking vital restrictions on firearms. “The other legislation is far more permissive and far more lenient with access to and circulation of arms in Brazil,” he told me.</p> <p>Among the proposed changes, there are measures that would allow certain professionals to carry weapons even outside of work – ranging from medical experts to tax auditors, public defenders, and bailiffs. Other changes would see Brazilians needing to renew firearms licenses for personal weapons in their homes every five years, instead of the current three. Yet another asks to scrap the Disarmament Statute entirely, and would reduce the legal age to buy firearms from 25 years down to 21.</p> <h3>“An imported logic”</h3> <p>Benedito Gomes Barbosa Jr., an advocate for the current legislative projects, voices a popular argument in favor of guns. “How do you confront someone with a gun? With peace gestures, offering hugs, asking him to sit and chat?” he told <strong>The Brazilian Report</strong>. “If you have to confront someone who is armed, it&#8217;s obvious that you can only do this if you are also armed.”</p> <p>According to Intituto Sou de Paz’s Marquez, Barbosa and the cause he champions under the moniker Movimento Viva Brasil copy their arguments straight out of the U.S.’s National Rifle Association playbook.  “It’s not just an imported logic, but even the posts, the memes,” said Marques. “It’s absolutely ridiculous that this happens, not in the least because the reality in the U.S. is very different from the Brazilian reality.”</p> <p>Despite having different origins and interests from Brazil’s bullet caucus, the NRA supported previous lobbying attempts by the Brazilian gun industry for looser control over firearms. Back in the early 2000s when Brazil’s federal government began to debate implementing stricter gun controls, the NRA was certainly interested.</p> <p>In 2003, one NRA representative met with figures from the Brazilian Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family, and Property (TFP), as well as with the now-undiscoverable National Association for the Owners and Sellers of Arms (ANCPA). The U.S. organization hoped to influence a 2005 referendum that would have proposed banning firearms and ammunition sales to civilians; they translated NRA statistics, arguments and adverts into Portuguese. Just prior to the vote, NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam reportedly said, “We view Brazil as the opening salvo for the global gun control movement. If gun control proponents succeed in Brazil, America will be next.”</p> <p>The NRA hasn’t taken much interest since, and Brazil remains without a real equivalent to the organization. But, as Canadian Coalition for Gun Control president Wendy Culkier <a href="http://www.americasquarterly.org/content/nras-hemispheric-reach">wrote</a> in 2013, “the message of distrust of government resonated in a country not long free of military dictatorship”.</p> <p>Capitalizing on public fear, IPEA researcher Daniel Cerqueira argues, is one of the ways politicians justify maintaining support for gun legislation – although the reality may be less idealistic and more related to campaign financing or appealing to Brazil’s increasingly conservative electorate.</p> <p>“There are those who earn money through this, whether they are those who manufacture and sell or congressmen who are financed by this. That makes a profit,” he explained to <strong>The Brazilian Report</strong>. “Others are not directly financed by the arms industry, but are congressmen who capitalize on votes by waving the same flag.”</p> <p><a href="http://congressoemfoco.uol.com.br/noticias/industria-reduz-em-r-1-mi-doacoes-a-bancada-da-bala/">Research</a> from political watchdog <em>Congresso Em Foco</em> (“Congress in Focus”) backs up Cerqueira’s research: more than 70 percent of candidates who received legal donations from the arms and munitions industry were elected. And the industry did not invest lightly prior to the 2014 elections, donating a total of at least US $530,000 in the successful campaigns of at least 30 politicians from 12 separate parties, including 21 federal and state representatives.</p> <h3>Flawed arguments</h3> <p>Brazil’s arms and ammunition industry remains one of the world’s largest and most powerful. Despite its purchase power, the ‘bullet caucus’ has yet to seriously address the wealth of scientific evidence that directly contradicts its arguments. Gun advocate Barbosa Jr., for his part, believes that some South American countries with greater access to firearms have better public security.</p> <p>“Uruguay has one gun for every 6 people. It has the second-lowest homicide rate in South America,” said Barbosa, who argues that the majority of crimes committed with firearms in Brazil are perpetrated by those with criminal profiles. “If you look at Paraguay, which has an absolutely liberal legislation in terms of carrying firearms, you will see that Paraguay has the third-lowest homicide rate.”</p> <p>However, research shows that the relationship between guns and criminality is more complex. A recent case study on arms smuggling in Honduras <a href="http://www.insightcrime.org/firearms-trafficking-honduras-introduction-major-findings">found</a> that “the availability of weapons facilitates violence”. Meanwhile, Cerqueira’s research in Brazil disproves Barbosa’s argument on the profile of those who commit crimes with firearms.</p> <p>“The majority of homicides in the country happen as a result of personal conflicts. It&#8217;s not that someone buys a gun with the intention of committing a crime,” he explained. Brazil’s femicide rates, the fifth highest in the world, are in part a reflection of what happens when guns are readily available in the home and tensions run unexpectedly high. Many of Brazil’s gun crimes, he says, happen in bar fights, traffic jams, or between neighbors.</p> <p>“The Goiânia tragedy is an example of how this happens, chalked up to bullying and a personal story,” he added. “Firearms are a clear factor in the instability of public security. Both Brazilian and international academic literature support this.”</p> <p>Cerqueira warns that guaranteeing easier access to firearms in Brazil will only increase the number of arms circulating illegally in the country, which then end up being used for violent crimes. And while gun-related crime rates may be significantly lower in Uruguay, the country’s legislation has been <a href="http://www.insightcrime.org/news-briefs/uruguay-police-smuggled-weapons-to-brazil">linked</a> to an increase in illegal weapons trade with Brazil – where illegal guns remain frequent protagonists in violent crime. And although some Brazilians may wish to acquire firearms for self-defense purposes, Instituto Sou de Paz’s Marques echoes Cerquiera’s sentiments that such a move puts the public in greater danger to begin with.</p> <p>“You don&#8217;t make public policy based on individual will; you make public policies based on diagnoses and scientific evidence, which determine that a policy will improve or worsen situations within society,” said Marques. “Brazilian society, which suffers with over 61,000 homicides per year &#8211; 71 percent of which are committed with firearms &#8211; needs to admit that there is a serious problem when it comes to arms in Brazil.”

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SocietyNov 03, 2017

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BY Ciara Long

Based in Rio de Janeiro, Ciara focuses on covering human rights, culture, and politics.