July 20, 2005

Crime-hit Brazil split over possible gun sales ban

By Andrei Khalip

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil (Reuters) - Rio de Janeiro taxi
driver Luiz Marcelo is normally mild mannered, but he loses his
temper when Brazil's upcoming referendum on whether gun sales
should be banned comes up in a conversation.

"All you see around us in the streets is crime, and the
best they can think of is to disarm honest citizens like me and
you," the 50-year-old almost shouts. "I have a gun at home and
another one in this car and I'm not giving them up."

Many Brazilians share this view, saying the state does not
give its people adequate protection from violent crime and they
need guns for self defense. But others are afraid of having
guns at home and don't like the idea of armed citizens walking
the streets.

There are no nationwide opinion polls projecting the
outcome of the referendum on Oct. 23 to ban gun and ammunition
sales. But some smaller polls have found strong support in
urban areas. Congress approved the vote on July 7.

Rampant crime gives Brazil the world's second-highest rate
of gunshot deaths after Venezuela with nearly 40,000 people
killed annually. That's more than the number who die yearly in
the Israel-Palestinian conflict, Colombia's civil war or who
died in the first Gulf war.

Brazil is also one of the world's top small arms makers.

But some Brazilians fear that without a ban on gun sales,
more carnage will result.

"My worst nightmare is that a bandit is robbing a car next
to mine in a traffic jam and somebody takes out a gun and
bullets start flying," said Maria Borges, 38, a psychotherapist
from Rio.

Her fears are based on real incidents -- such as when
several bus passengers, including an old man, were wounded in
Rio de Janeiro in January in a gunfight between an off-duty
policeman and two robbers, one of whom died.

A poll in the seven cities of the densely populated,
industrial ABC region in Sao Paulo state earlier this month
showed that about eight in every 10 citizens wanted the ban.
Experts say, however, there are more supporters of gun sales in
the outback where many farmers have shotguns and pistols.

The referendum idea was part of the so-called Disarmament
Statute, or stricter gun controls, developed by the Justice
Ministry under President Luiz Inacio Lula de Silva's
administration which has pledged to combat rampant violence.


Gun manufacturers have avoided commenting on the
referendum. But Forjas Taurus, whose pistols are hugely popular
in the United States, has posted on its Web site comments from
clients who believe deaths are mostly caused by criminals with
illegally obtained weapons.

The Web site says the number of guns in illegal circulation
is "stratospherically" higher at an estimated 8.7 million
pieces, rather than the 7,219 officially sold last year for
private use, so prohibition will not solve the crime problem.

If Brazil votes to ban gun and ammunition sales, those who
already have a registered pistol or shotgun will still be able
to buy 50 cartridges a year. But under strict rules imposed
last year, they need to re-register their weapons every three
years, paying a special fee that would be prohibitive for many.
They also have to pass psychological and other tests.

Taurus said its gun sales to private individuals have been
"practically zero" since the new rules came into effect.
Meanwhile, its exports jumped over 40 percent last year.

"I bet on a significant rise in crime with the ban," said
Gilberto Thums, a prosecutor and a well-known critic of the
proposed ban on gun sales. "This referendum is idiocy."

Anti-gun activists say the arms situation in Brazil with
its huge social inequality and widespread poverty is different
from richer countries like Canada, where guns in households are
commonplace but gunshot death rates are extremely low.

"Inequality in big urban centers is an important factor
here that pushes young people with their resentments into crime
in general and drug trafficking in particular," said Rubem
Fernandes, director of Viva Rio rights group.

Security experts tend to agree that a gun offers only
relative protection or can pose more risks for its bearer and
people around.

"Our recommendation to clients always is not to have a
gun," said Alessandro Sanches, a security consultant with Kroll
Inc. international risk consulting company in Sao Paulo. He
said shooting range practice is not enough to stand up to
thugs, which requires psychological training and experience.

"In fact, many people who have guns at home make it easier
for criminals to expand their arsenals. Many like to boast that
they have a gun, which often is the reason for robbery," he

Drug traffickers in Rio de Janeiro even have a history of
raids on army weapons depots. Police have discovered slum
arsenals with machine-guns, land mines, grenades and bazookas.

Last month police found a missile. They suspect gangsters
from Rio's notorious Red Command criminal organization jointly
with Sao Paulo gang First Command of the Capital were planning
to use it to free jailed ringleaders.

Still, police figures show that most of the guns they
confiscate are Brazil-made revolvers, and these are responsible
for most crimes such as street robberies.