Brazil: Ban on Arms Sales Fails in Popular Ballot

Article excerpt

An Oct. 23 popular referendum in Brazil to ban the sales of guns and bullets to civilians overwhelmingly failed, contrary to early expectations that Brazilians would support the measure. There were differing interpretations of why the measure underwent such a radical shift in popularity, ranging from it being a rejection of corruption in the government of President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva to it being a success of marketing by the domestic and international pro-gun lobby. The government is still pointing to successes in its disarmament program started in 2003, which set up the October vote and has collected more than 400,000 firearms.

"Nao" vote stages massive comeback

Brazil suffers from the highest number of annual firearms deaths in the world, about 36,000 last year, according to its Health Ministry and the anti-violence advocacy group Viva Rio. By comparison, the US, with a population nearly 40% larger, had about 30,000 firearms deaths in 2002, according to the most recent government numbers. Calculated as a percentage of population, only Venezuela has proportionally more gun deaths.

Estimates and surveys earlier this year foresaw as much as 70% to 80% of Brazilian voters backing a ban. But, in the end, Brazilian voters rejected the proposal by nearly 2 to 1. US groups fighting the gun issue closely watched the vote, saying a successful gun ban in this country of 186 million people could have influenced US arms policy.

"It was the most sudden and drastic shift in public opinion I've ever seen," said Ricardo Guedes, director of the Sensus polling firm. The "Nao" vote took a 28-point lead with 64% of the vote, while "Sim" won 36%.

President Lula endorsed the ban as did the national Catholic bishops conference Conferencia Nacional dos Bispos do Brasil (CNBB) and a list of 65 top security professionals from the federal, military, and civil police.

One analysis of the shift in public opinion said it resulted from three weeks of free radio and television advertising time allotted to the two congressional blocs representing the two sides in the debate: the Front for a Gun-Free Brazil, which supported the ban, and the Front for the Right to Legitimate Self-Defense, which opposed it.

Those who supported the ban stressed that ending the legal sale of firearms and ammunition would help prevent gun-related deaths resulting from interpersonal disputes, accidents, and suicides, in addition to cutting off one of the sources of firearms for criminals.

Opponents of the ban succeeded in winning over voters with arguments based on the government's inability to ensure public security and the subsequent need for people to have the right to defend themselves with firearms, concluded Guedes.

A lack of confidence in the government's ability to protect the populace was notable. A report by the human rights group Amnesty International (AI) released in the last week of October said the use of death squads and torture are common practices among Brazilian police. Only 35% of Brazilians said they had confidence in their police in an August poll by the research firm IBOPE.

Rural and remote areas like Amazonas state, where 2.8 million people live in a region nearly the size of Alaska, saw very high rates of voter rejection for the ban. Compared to the 64% of the entire country who voted no, rejection rates ran as high as 87% in rural states. Lawlessness, slavery, murders, and illegal land seizures contributed to the perception of the people of the rural regions, with little government presence to count on, that they needed to have firearms for self-defense.

After months of corruption scandals surrounding Lula's governing party (see NotiSur, 2005-06-24, 2005-09-09), the president's connection to the yes vote may have proven to be a curse. His popularity numbers have declined sharply, and some voters may have seen the referendum as an opportunity to rebuke him. …