Brazil Weighs a National Gun Ban

By Monte Reel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, October 1, 2005

RIO DE JANEIRO -- As she walked home through the twisting, narrow passageways that honeycomb the large hillside slum of Rocinha, Denise do Espirito Santo spotted a young man following her.

She recognized him as a drug dealer, part of an armed gang that holds sway over much of the neighborhood, but she wasn't afraid. When she reached home, she said, she waved goodbye to him and stepped through the door she had left unlocked while shopping.

"The dealers watch out for everyone in the neighborhood 24 hours a day, doing what the police don't," said do Espirito Santo, 43. "People here fear the police and their guns more than they do the dealers."

The inverted realities of Brazil's poorest neighborhoods have added complexity to the debate about gun control, but later this month every citizen from 18 to 70 will confront a clear, yes-no question: Should the sale of all types of guns and ammunition be banned nationwide for everyone except the police and military?

The Oct. 23 referendum, in which all adults must participate (voting is optional for those over 70), will be the first time any country has taken a proposed gun ban to the national ballot. Brazil has the highest number of firearms fatalities in the world, with more than 36,000 people shot dead last year, according to government figures.

Initial surveys indicate that most Brazilians favor a ban, hoping it will at least reduce the large number of guns circulating in the country. Opponents argue that banning guns will do little to stop criminals while making it harder for citizens to defend themselves.

Internationally, gun control advocates and opponents are monitoring the campaign closely, studying the possibility that the referendum could be replicated elsewhere.

"If the ban is passed, then I definitely expect other countries to try the same thing," said Rebecca Peters, director of the International Action Network on Small Arms, a coalition of nongovernmental organizations leading a U.N. effort to curb the illegal gun trade. "It will send a message to other countries influenced by powerful gun lobbies that it's possible to work around them."

All of that means little in Brazil's poor urban neighborhoods, known as favelas , where the only relevant question is whether a gun ban would make people safer. Nationwide, the number of shooting deaths has more than doubled here since the early 1990s.

Do Espirito Santo, who works at a nursing clinic in Rocinha, said a 17-month turf war among rival drug gangs and violent clashes with police have eroded the feeling of security she once felt at home. Her son Rajiv, 13, still plays in the neighborhood, but he follows one unbreakable rule: If you see trouble, run straight home.

"It's not that bad," Rajiv said, adopting the casual tone that is customary among favela residents when speaking of violence. "I see more people with guns in other parts of the neighborhood than I do here around our house."

Throughout Rocinha, where an estimated 150,000 people live, residents are familiar with the referendum. Television and radio stations have championed it and promoted a ban on guns for the past two years. TV Globo even incorporated the issue into the story line of one of its widely watched soap operas.

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