Opinion by Robert Muggah and Ilona Szabo de Carvalho
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – Last week’s slaughter of twenty elementary school children in the United States has tragic echoes with the massacre in Realengo, Rio de Janeiro earlier this year. At 8:30 AM on April 7th, Wellington Oliveira calmly walked into a classroom with two .38 and .32 caliber handguns, and shot twelve children dead.
At least sixty shots were fired and twenty boys and girls were critically wounded. It was the worst school massacre in Brazilian history. As horrific as the events in Realengo were, gun-related violence is alarmingly common in Brazil.
The country leads the world in total homicides, accounting for roughly 50,000 killings a year, or 1 in 10 of every violent death on earth. Many of these killings occur in the country’s cities and more than two thirds of them – some 37,000 – are due to firearms.
Brazil’s guns often find their way into the wrong hands. There are less than twenty million weapons in circulation, about a third of which are licensed and registered. This translates into one gun for every twenty Brazilians.
As any police officer knows, most of them are illegal, held by private collectors, security personnel, and gang members. Others were originally “surplus” in army and police arsenals and then diverted into civilian markets. Indeed, Wellington’s gun was illegal, sold to him from a man who claimed he needed it for protection.
In spite of its serious problem with gun crime at home, Brazil is busily arming the rest of the world and its own population. Brazil is a major small arms producer, trailing only the United States, Italy and Germany.
Handgun and ammunition exports have increased by more than 370 percent since 2000. Home-grown companies like Taurus are selling to Colombia, Pakistan, the United States and Zimbabwe, but also to the military, police and civilian market at home. It is hardly surprising that Wellington’s weapon of choice was a Rossi 971, made in Brazil.
The Brazilian government only recently introduced responsible gun control policies at home. While export and import controls were initiated during the 1930s, serious domestic legislation to regulate local purchase and use were established in 1980. By 1997, the government passed law 9437 that created the Sistema Nacional de Armas, or SINARM.
The law called for, among other things, simple registration procedures of firearms manufacturers, wholesalers, retailers, exporters and importers. It also mandated basic background checks by the federal police. But the law has been poorly implemented owing to rivalries between federal and state police forces and persistent weaknesses in implementation.
Even so, Brazil has much to teach the world when it comes to innovative gun violence reduction strategies. After considerable pressure from police and civil society groups, the country established a Disarmament Statute in 2003. The Statute centralizes responsibility for controlling arms and ammunition.
It also forbids civilian carrying and sets out reasonable penalties for illegal sales to civilians and private security companies. The results were immediate, including a sharp reduction in gun sales and an estimated 5,000 lives saved. Astonishingly, more progressive firearm regulation efforts were stymied by pro-gun advocates with support from the National Rifle Association (NRA).
In spite of uneven gun control legislation at the federal level, cities like São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro have launched their own violence reduction efforts with striking reductions in gun deaths. Both cities were once listed as among the world’s most dangerous, but today rank 17th and 25th respectively.
Led by enlightened public authorities with energetic support from state police forces and civil society, both cities have rolled out path-breaking community policing interventions. The UPP model is already being replicated from Panama to South Africa. While municipal-level initiatives will not cure Brazil’s epidemic of gun violence, there are unmistakable signs of progress.
Brazilians have a basic moral obligation to keep investing in responsible gun control: it can and does save lives. Gun deaths are preventable. What is more, reasonable checks and balances on firearms selling and ownership are cost-effective.
Practical strategies to centralize firearms control in the federal police, mark weapons and ammunition at the point of manufacture, register and restrict civilian ownership and carrying, and limit their diversion from the legal to the illegal market can reduce the burden of preventable injuries on the public health system. And with fewer young people getting killed and crippled, they and their families will be more productive. While it makes ethical and economic sense to regulate arms, it will take real political courage.
Robert Muggah is the Research Director of the Igarapé Institute and a Principal of the SecDev Group. Ilona Szabo de Carvalho is the Executive Director of the Igarapé Institute