On October 23 an estimated 122 million Brazilians will vote in a national referendum on whether to ban the sale of guns and ammunition to private citizens. The first of its kind in the world, this referendum has divided the population of Brazil, a world leader in gun deaths, along sim or não lines.
In 2003 voters here passed what is the strictest gun law in the Americas; now the nation’s top leadership is divided on how much further to go. The stakes are high. The United Nations reported in June that between 1979 and 2003 more than 500,000 Brazilians died from firearms, 39,000 in 2003 alone. President Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva supports the ban as a way to control the flow of Brazil’s estimated 17 million guns, while Vice President and Minister of Defense José Alencar says it will only benefit criminals with guns.
People on both sides of the issue have staged marches, hawked shirts and hats and unleashed a blitz of television and radio ads. Gun control has even become a story line in one of Brazil’s popular soap operas.
As the vote nears, gun control advocates accuse opponents of underhanded tactics, which may be swinging voters against the referendum at the last minute. Earlier in the campaign, polls showed 60 to 80 percent favored the ban. By last week, 45 percent were in favor and 49 percent opposed, according to the polling firm Ibope.
Around the world, gun makers and proponents of gun control are watching. “If it passes, the referendum will show other countries that the gun lobby can be beaten,” says Rebecca Peters, director of the International Action Network on Small Arms (IANSA), a UK-based global network of more than 500 nongovernmental organizations favoring gun control. “If that happens,” Peters says, “we believe campaigns will arise in other countries, in Latin America and elsewhere, for a moratorium or for serious restrictions on the proliferation of guns.”
Brazil’s gun makers have sweated bullets in recent years as the country tackled the proliferation of firearms. The country had no regulations dealing specifically with civilian purchases of guns until 1980, when the War Ministry mandated registration and controls on civilian ownership, purchasing and sales of firearms. In the 1990s, as gun-related crime rose, the Brazilian Congress eventually passed a law in 1997 that improved the country’s gun registry and later evolved into the landmark Disarmament Statute of 2003. Besides mandating the current referendum, the 2003 statute set jail terms for arms traffickers, prohibited citizens from carrying guns and put heavy restrictions on sales. Progress has been made. According to the Brazilian Health Ministry, gun deaths fell by more than 8 percent in 2004 over the previous year–the first drop in thirteen years. But gun vendors cite this as proof that the referendum to ban civilian gun sales isn’t needed.
Flush with money but short on tactics, Brazil’s gun lobby has sought help from northern kin, the National Rifle Association. In 2003, as the Disarmament Statute neared a vote, Charles Cunningham, an NRA lobbyist in Washington, traveled to São Paulo on invitation from the Brazilian Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property, a pro-gun group. He spoke publicly and met privately with gun supporters to discuss strategies, though an NRA spokesman said the association does not discuss the contents of its meetings.