Brazil Needs to Double Down on Responsible Gun Control

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.


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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

4 Responses to "Brazil Needs to Double Down on Responsible Gun Control"

  1. Nicholas  December 29, 2012 at 4:10 PM

    I’m tired of naive experts as robbert muggah with their biased oppinion against reality and against brazilians who have the right to protect them self from crime that cannot and won’t always be stopped / prevent from happening by their elected government officials and civil/state/federal police who work for and with the people. Guns do not automatic kill people. It’s (crazy, sick) people with a gun or with another lethal weapon kill people who are unarmed or who are legally responsible gun owners.That is the truth and reality. Gun control, strickt or less strickt, does not work and will not ever work. Why? Rules will be broken by people who do not care about rules and fines plus sadly It prevents people who do respect human life, private property, who obbey the rules in the constitution but do not have enough money for buying a gun legally to protect them self from bad/crazy/sick/mental ill people who do not care about rules and from corrupted officials who work for the people but sell weapons illegal to make extra money (greed). greed and corruption will always exist in our society, though we must fight against it. There needs to be rules, but reality is and a major problem, too many rules raises prices ( only the privelage will be able to buy guns legally to protect themself and properties) and (will) create (more) corruption / fuelling the illegal (black market) gun sales. Robbert types proudly how the brazilian goverment prevents people carrying guns and claims (legally) gun sales have dropped. Robbert fails to type that illegal guns in the hands of people (good and people) has gone up. No matter the rules, bad/crazy/sick/mental ill people in all classes (rich, middle class, poor) who do and will always exist in our society and most cases, do not care about rules, will do everything (mostly illegal) to get any weapon in their hands to commit a crime or to fullfil their sick fantasy. That is reality and impossible to prevent for 100%. The police cannot protect the people, whom they serve by the constitution, 24 hours, though the job of the police in brazil is to provide security on the streets (reality is, it’s not always possible or happening) and to deliver a suspect who comitted a crime/felony infront of the judge in court who ordered the court order. By the constitution, it is a right for all brazilian people to protect them self and their properties. It thoes not say how or with what and does not say you have the right to own a gun. The truth of gun control ( too many rules and too expensive to pay for all the pappers a person must fill in to buy and own legally a gun for his or her protection), is that it prevents the people, middle class and poor people who don’t have much money, who demand an care about security, about life, rule of law, know that nobody can protect them for 100%, need protection and want ( basic right by law) to protect them self from criminals/mental ill people owning illegally or legal a gun or more and are failed to be served with protection by their local police (and government who work for the people and cannot always protect the people, armed or unarmed). Brazilians have the obligation to demand better but realistic services from their local/state/federal government that cripples crime as best they can and Brazilians have the obligation to protect them self. That is their right, what robbert muggah forgets for his reason and fails to mention. No matter how great/good/strong the economy is, all kind of crimes, problems people create by using knives, guns and other lethal weapons will always exist in our society. Human beings are unpredictable but all humans have the right to protect them selve in bad times / situations and in good days even if their elected / unelected officials provide services that protects the people. Conclusion: too strict gun control won’t prevent crime and does not stop crime ( injured or murdered by a person who triggered the gun that was stolen from a legally armed citizen, bought on the illegal wide open market or bought it legally). Crimes with a gun are also being commited by the (corrupt) police, military. Are we going to stop them with rules? Crimes are also commited with knives, cars, hammers, screwdrivers, machetis…etc. Are we going to stop people buying them through paperwork? Are we going to ban them? Logic answer is no but If that happens, we will enter a horrible situation for example a huge and more powerful black market. Souds familiar? I’m not a gun owner but i do understand why people own them, witness naive people who do not or cannot face reality and witness experts who are obssesed with gun control for the following reasons: 1 they can but do not ( want to) see and understand or they cannot understand that people have the will for a personal reason and have the right to protect them self with a gun or any other security measures and convinced them self that police / goverment will and must provide 24 hours security. 2 They hate or dislike guns. 3 They know or do not know their rights and hate or dislike people who want and feel they must protect them self, because noboddy is going to protect them. 4 they are naive and make money by writing theories that are proven wrong, non realistic and not working in the real world. 5 they do not want an armed population while they can afford to buy and own legally firearms or already owns firearms in the name of security, hunting or both reasons. Researcher Robbert Muggah is one of them ( between 1 and 5 ).

  2. Marcia Cunha  December 30, 2012 at 11:20 AM

    Excellent article! They must be controlled. Period!

  3. Nicholas  January 3, 2013 at 6:36 AM

    Well Marcia Cunha, against who should guns be controlled? A criminals and sick minded people who don’t care about gun laws? B people who feel and want, because they have that constitutional right to protect them self against A? Or C, both A and B? Why are their still to many illegal guns in Brazil and can you name 1 nation where gun control really works and have zero murders by guns?

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