Please Don't Shoot

By Marcela Sanchez
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, May 5, 2005; 10:30 PM

WASHINGTON -- A word of advice to Latin Americans traveling to Florida in the near future: be on your absolute best behavior. Keep a smile on your face and lest any gesture you make appear as a threat, keep your hands in your pockets. Then again, don't. You'd better keep them out in the open where they can be seen.

Last week, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush signed the so-called "Castle Doctrine,'' making it lawful for Floridians to "meet force with force, including deadly force'' when they feel physically threatened. The law continues Florida's pursuit of armed self-defense as a fundamental right, championed most notably in its 1987 law allowing Floridians to carry concealed weapons.

While this new law may seem common-sensical to many U.S. citizens -- one should be able to fight back when threatened -- it is hard for Latin Americans to wrap their minds around the general notion that liberalizing the use of weapons increases personal safety. In Latin America, those who carry weapons are police, military and outlaws. Unfortunately, it has sometimes been hard to tell them apart.

In polls across the region, personal safety and the protection of one's property are among Latin Americans' top concerns today. But unlike the United States where 38 of 50 states now have laws permitting concealed weapons, Latin American governments are heading in a different direction.

The most restrictive is Brazil, which adopted in December 2003 a so-called disarmament statute, a sweeping gun law that bars civilians from carrying firearms. The country is planning for a nationwide referendum in October to ban private firearm ownership altogether.

Mexico is the second-most restrictive country with its de facto prohibition of the purchase of firearms, according to Pablo Dreyfus of Viva Rio, a firearms research group based in Rio de Janeiro. Since the 1970s, Mexico has issued virtually no licenses for such purchases, leaving people who want to buy handguns with little option other than resorting to illegal means to obtain them.

In fact, small arms are widely available on the black market and there are more small-arms fatalities south of the U.S. border than in any other region of the world. The number of firearm homicides in Latin America is "five times higher than the world average," according to the Geneva-based Small Arms Survey project. (The rate of firearm deaths in the United States is less than three times the world average.)

In 2002, Brazil headed the world's list for the most people killed by firearms with 38,088, while Colombia had the unfortunate distinction of highest per-capita gun deaths with 55.7 per 100,000 (according to Colombian government statistics homicides have gone down by 34 percent in the last two years).

To the contrary, promoting firearms in a country such as Colombia would bring a "disastrous'' increase in homicides, said Alfredo Rangel, a security analyst and former adviser to the country's defense ministry. The reason, he said, is simple: As long as impunity remains rampant and laws are scarcely enforced, people will use weapons irresponsibly.

Clearly, the popularity of gun ownership and a powerful gun lobby make protecting and expanding gun rights far more feasible in the United States than in Latin America. But, more profoundly, the disparity can be understood (like so many North/South disparities) in terms of haves and have-nots: The United States has a strong rule of law and Latin America does not.

The "Castle Doctrine'' in Florida is, in fact, a strange testament to this disparity. Here, the rule of law appears so resilient the government is willing to grant individual citizens the right, in a life or death situation, to act as judge and jury. The underlying belief is that gun-toting U.S. citizens suddenly won't turn into killers because of this law.

Meanwhile, Latin America has no such luxury. There, governments must assume they would only be aiding those who would commit violent acts by liberalizing gun ownership and usage.

Latin Americans should take my travel warning with a grain of salt and not hesitate to make their next visit to Florida. It is, after all, a state of laws. However, I wonder, might there come a time when the abundance of liberalized gun laws undermines the very thing that makes them tenable? Might such a proliferation engender more fear and distrust of one another and undermine common civility? If so, the U.S. rule of law may start to look like something that, sadly, Latin Americans know too well.

Marcela Sanchez's e-mail address is desdewash@washpost.com.


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