Gun Politics: Reflections on Brazil's Failed Gun Ban
Referendum in the Rio de Janeiro Context
In this chapter, I wish to explore some of the global dimensions of the recent gun ban referendum in Brazil, taking Rio de Janeiro as a case study to think with. During research in the early 1990s in the shantytowns of Rio de Janeiro, I became aware of the local dimensions surrounding firearms, especially among male youths. The ethnography I wrote based on that research, Laughter Out of Place: Race, Class, Violence and Sexuality in a Rio Shantytown (2003), chronicles the violence of the 1990s in Rio through a close-up look at one favela (urban shantytown) I pseudonymously named Felicidade Eterna, located some 50 km from the city center of Rio de Janeiro.
In the final chapters of the book, I focused on the complex relationships between the residents living in the shantytowns, the drug gang members—most often boys and young men raised in these same communities—and the police forces, renowned for their use of lethal force against the poor and for their chronic corruption. During my last visit to Rio in 1998, residents in Felicidade Eterna expressed a solemn concern that the rules for appropriate revenge targets and the fragile peace at times established in their community between the police and the local gang had slipped away dangerously into a space of unpredictability. To these residents, the gangs of the 1980s were remembered as being more concerned about garnering the support of the communities they lived in, and seemed to live by fixed and somewhat stable rules of revenge that had a particular logic to them. In contrast, the gangs that had evolved in the 1990s seemed to exhibit characteristics distinct from their predecessors. Among other differences, they carried more powerful weapons and seemed to hesitate less often in using them. The clarity of the focus for a revenge killing seemed to slip from the perpetrator of the original crime to that person's family and friends, involving members of the community that would have otherwise considered themselves neutral toward the gangs. In the later chapters of Laughter Out of Place, I joined numerous other scholars of Brazilian violence in suggesting that the drug gangs had successfully created a kind of parallel state (Leeds 1996), one that provided some of the services—primarily access to