Opinion, by Samantha Barthelemy

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – Residents of Rio de Janeiro state enjoyed February with the lowest rates of homicide since statistics started to be recorded in 1991. There were 368 killings in the second month of 2011, compared with 473 in February 2010 – a 22.1 percent drop, according to Rio’s Institute of Public Security (ISP).

Samantha Barthelemy, Carioca in New York specializing in International Security Policy, Human Rights and Advocacy.

These numbers may not constitute enough reason to celebrate, and Rio still has a long way to go. But we are making progress and we should not allow the recent tragedy to obfuscate that.

Rio de Janeiro lived through indescribable moments of pain on April 7th, when 23-year-old Wellington Menezes de Oliveira walked into Tasso da Silveira public school in Realengo, and shot and killed twelve children and injured many more.

The nation was shocked by the brutality of Brazil’s first major school shooting.

But as a society, we would be mistaken to link Oliveira’s actions to the 64 percent of Brazilians who voted against the government-backed proposal to ban the sale of weapons in 2005.

We would also be misguided to equate the 2005 “no,” with a “no” for disarmament.

At the time of the referendum, Brazil had one of the world’s highest death rates from firearms – making one victim every fifteen minutes. Guns were the leading cause of death among young people, according to the United Nations.

Even then, Brazilians exercised their right to choose and demanded tougher security policies from their government. Many of the “no” citizens participated in surrendering an estimated one million weapons during the civil disarmament campaign launched in 2005 – after which murder statistics decreased.

Today lawmakers, with Senate leader José Sarney at the forefront, say they will rush through a bill to allow another referendum to ban the sale of firearms to be held this autumn. It would be “society’s chance to correct its mistake of 2005.”

Politicians argue if Oliveira had not had easy access to guns and ammunition, April 7th could have been different. But the guns employed by the shooter were not acquired legally – one of the weapons sold to Oliveira had been stolen in 1994.

Millions of Brazilians who rejected the proposed 2005 ban believed it would have no real effect on criminals who, like Oliveira, do not purchase firearms in legal shops, and would continue to have easy access to heavy-caliber weapons thanks to Brazil’s porous borders, vast illegal markets and lax security policies and law enforcement.

Anti-guns organizations estimate there are 17 million weapons circulating in the country, half of them unregistered. They are not coming from the local “guns & ammo depot” – many of which fail to comply with the legal requisites established in 2003 for the sale of guns.

It would be wrong to use this delicate moment to ask Brazilians, again, to vote on what they unambiguously decided six years ago. As Security Secretary José Mariano Beltrame is showing us, the reduction of violence in Rio does not have to be limited to repressive policies.

Let’s use this momentum to demand accountability from our leaders and ask that the hundreds of millions of dollars that would be employed towards another referendum be devoted to enforcing our laws and developing more efficient security policies and education campaigns.


  1. As tragic as this incident was, it was very isolated – such a thing has never happened before in Rio (or anywhere in Brazil)…


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