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.
Supporters of a ban do not claim that outlawing the sale of guns and ammunition would put a stop to violence. Instead, they say the initial aim is to reduce the huge number of guns flooding the country of 186 million people. An estimated 17.5 million guns are currently in Brazil, about 90 percent in civilian hands and half of them illegal.
An analysis of the guns used in crimes and seized by police from 1953 to 2003 showed that 80 percent were pistols and revolvers, only 33 percent of them legally registered.
"In Rio alone, there's a gun stolen once every five hours," said Josephine Bourgois, an arms control researcher with Viva Rio, an anti-gun organization that conducted the analysis. "By reducing the overall number of guns in circulation, we'll be able to decrease the number that migrate from law-abiding citizens and end up in the hands of criminals."
Early public opinion polls show that the argument has impressed the public, with more than 70 percent of respondents saying they support the ban. Paulo Amendoim, president of Rocinha's resident association and host of a weekly community radio program, said he thinks most will vote for the ban, even though they do not expect it to solve their problems.
"I always talk about it on my radio program," he said. "I think . . . it's going to pass."
Many opponents reluctantly agree with that prediction. In a shopping mall in the beachside neighborhood of Copacabana, the doors of the Guns & Security shop have been locked for the past week. The owner, Cirme Carvelho Alvim, said he stopped buying guns two weeks ago, figuring it was a waste to invest more in a business that might be forced to close within a month.
"Criminals don't buy guns from shops like mine," said Alvim, reached at a telephone number he had taped to his darkened shop window. He said most of his customers are police officers and retired military members. Criminals "smuggle their guns from other countries," he said. "Brazil's borders are too big, and the police can't stop that."
Reinaldo do Souza, 58, stopped by Alvim's store to browse, not knowing it was closed. The retired military man said he kept a gun and two big dogs at home for security.
"Any time I hear the dogs bark, I get my gun," he said. "The problem is not whether people have or don't have guns. . . . No one I know would buy a gun legally to commit a crime. The gun ban won't do anything to help decrease crime because criminals will still be able to get their guns without a problem. They can just go to the border of Paraguay. You can get a bazooka there if you want one."
The same points are being made by the ban's organized opponents, a coalition of legislators and groups representing gun dealers and manufacturers. When the ban was proposed in 2003, opponents invited a representative from the U.S. National Rifle Association to Sao Paulo to speak about strategy.
"It's already very difficult to buy a gun in Brazil," said Flavio Bolsonaro, a representative in Rio's state legislature who is leading a local drive against the ban. "If a citizen can go through all the steps necessary to buy and register a gun here, then it's his right to defend himself."
Do Espirito Santo, who realizes that many of her neighbors will vote for the ban, said she has decided to vote against it. She said she hates the culture of guns and would love to see them disappear, but doesn't think the ban would reduce their presence in her neighborhood. She also fears it would increase the black-market gun trade.
For her own protection, do Espirito Santo keeps a long knife hidden in a corner of her living room. She said she doesn't want a gun, because the police might take it if they knew, and the drug dealers might become suspicious of her.
For now, in communities like Rocinha, that is what passes for gun control.