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Sunday, Oct. 30, 2005

Gun control loses yet again


LONDON -- Last Sunday in Brazil, a country with the second-highest rate of gun deaths on the planet, almost two-thirds of Brazilians voted against a total ban on the sale of firearms. Explain that.

Brazil loses 38,000 people a year in gun-related killings. That is twice as bad as the United States, generally regarded as the industry leader in these matters: the U.S. has one and a half times Brazil's population, but only 30,000 Americans are shot to death each year. In Brazil, just being on the street can be fatal, with thousands of innocent people killed in the cross fire each year as rival gangs fight for control of the drug trade. And yet Brazilians voted to keep the sale of guns legal.

Part of the answer was a ruthless media campaign by the local gun lobby that exploited the free television time both sides are granted in Brazilian referendums. They hijacked Nelson Mandela's image and claimed he opposed gun control (until his lawyers made them stop). They compared pro-ban advocates to Nazis. They translated reams of propaganda from the National Rifle Association in the U.S. and pumped it out over the air unaltered, with the result that millions of Brazilians now believe they have a constitutional right to bear arms. (They don't.)

It was crude, but it worked. One month before the referendum, opinion polls suggested that 80 percent of Brazilians would vote in favor of the gun ban. Last Sunday, over 63 percent voted against it. Yet the answer cannot simply be that the pro-gun side had better propaganda: Brazilians are not politically unsophisticated people. The issue is more complicated than it seems.

Brazil already has very strict gun-control laws. Faced with a 37 percent increase in the homicide rate between 1992 and 1999, the Brazilian Congress passed laws in the past few years that require all guns to be registered, raise the minimum age for gun ownership to 25, and make it illegal to carry a firearm outside one's home or business. It also funded a national buy-back program that took 400,000 weapons out of circulation, and caused (or at least coincided with) an 8 percent drop in the gun death rate last year.

All those steps enjoyed popular support, but the referendum proposal -- to ban all sales of guns and ammunition in Brazil except to the police and military -- was clearly a step too far. People don't trust the Brazilian police to protect them, and they know that the criminals will always be able to get their hands on guns anyway.

This is a rather circular argument, since the main way Brazilian criminals get their guns is by stealing them: 72 percent of the guns used in crimes in Rio in the past six years were originally registered to ordinary, law-abiding citizens or to the police and armed forces. But perception is everything in politics, and many people feel that owning a gun makes them safer. Besides, there is some truth behind the NRA's slogan that "guns don't kill people; people kill people."

There are only an estimated 17 million guns in private hands in Brazil, a country of 182 million people. By contrast, there are 192 million firearms in private hands in America, which has 296 million people. Partly, this just shows that Americans are richer than Brazilians, with American gun-owners typically owning two, three or many firearms. Three-quarters of adult Americans actually own no gun at all. But that still means that around one in four Americans owns at least one gun, while maybe one in 10 Brazilians does.

So why do Brazilians kill one another at twice the rate of Americans? For the same reason that Americans shoot one another at four or five times the rate of people in Israel or Switzerland, even though a majority of adult men in those countries, because they are army reservists, keep automatic weapons in their homes. The reason is culture: it is people, not guns, who kill people.

Almost all the countries with really high rates of gun killings are the former settler societies of the Americas, where in a relatively recent past most people were armed and there was no effective law enforcement. So Americans are much more likely to shoot one another than French or Japanese. And Brazilians, with even more lawless attitudes, are more likely to shoot one another than Americans -- and Venezuelans are completely off the graph, with three times the American rate of gun killings.

Far more than the rest of the world, these are the societies that really need gun control -- but given their traditions, they are the least likely to accept it. Last year, for example, the U.S. Congress allowed a law banning assault weapons to lapse, and just this month it passed a law indemnifying gun-makers against lawsuits for crimes committed with their products.

Failing gun control, the only other way for these societies to lower the gun-death rate substantially would be to legalize drugs, which would at least put the gangs out of business. But since they are also quite puritanical about drug abuse, they can't do that either. They will just have to live with their guns and the killings that come with them.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.


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