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.
The NRA denies any direct funding of Brazilian groups, but activists say Brazilian gun control foes have directly translated NRA materials and used statistics and rhetoric that bear a striking resemblance to NRA’s television infomercials aired in the United States. In some cases, the translations were culturally clumsy. One TV spot refers to the “right” to own a gun (Brazilians have no such right) while another argues for gun ownership because “it can take up to seven minutes for police to respond to your call.” Jessica Galeria, a former Fulbright scholar who coordinates research on women and armed violence for Viva Rio, a Brazilian gun control group, observed that the “seven minutes” reference was taken from American NRA materials. In Brazil, she said, “it would likely take much longer.”
Lately, the gun lobby has come under fire for a television commercial that featured a newspaper photo of Nelson Mandela visiting São Paulo, his fist raised in an apparent show of solidarity. But Mandela has been a supporter of gun control efforts in South Africa and played no role in the referendum campaign. The linking of Mandela’s image with the pro-gun effort prompted Mandela’s attorney, Don MacRobert, to fire off a letter to Brazilian Congressman Alberto Fraga, president of the Parliamentary Front for the Right to Legitimate Self Defense, a key pro-gun group. MacRobert told Fraga that it was “incorrect, improper and illegal” to use his image in the video and to reference “Mr. Mandela’s fighting against apartheid when such struggle bears no relation to the issues described, i.e., the sale of guns.”
The Global Lobby
No matter what the outcome of the referendum, the situation in Brazil underscores the increasing globalization of the gun lobby. Chris W. Cox, the NRA’s chief lobbyist in Washington, claims Brazil is “a steppingstone for the global gun-ban lobby to inflict its will on law-abiding gun owners in the United States,” adding that Rebecca Peters and “the global gun-ban movement” will get “the fight of their lives” if they come stateside. Not surprisingly, the same argument has surfaced in Brazil, where pro-gun groups accuse gun control advocates of being global interventionists backed by foreign gun makers.
The NRA’s role as a global vector for tactics and strategy will grow as it spins the international gun control movement as a backdoor threat to the Second Amendment. Wendy Cukier, a criminology professor and president of the Coalition for Gun Control, says the NRA’s globalization began around 1997, when the UN first tackled the issue of firearms. In an upcoming book, she reports that the NRA has helped provide strategy consultations and PR campaigns to gun control foes in Canada, Japan, the United Kingdom and South Africa. Slate has reported that in 1997 the NRA pitched in with gun interests in eleven countries, including France, the Netherlands, Germany and Italy, to form a lobbying group called the World Forum on the Future of Sports Shooting Activities.
To engage more effectively with its new global enemies, the NRA has secured permanent accreditation as a nongovernmental organization from the UN’s Economic and Social Council. Thus armed with lobbying rights, NRA officials have lobbed fire-and-brimstone threats that Washington will cut UN funding if any gun control programs threaten American’s gun owners. (Currently, two of the NRA’s Republican friendlies, Louisiana’s Representative Charles Boustany and Senator David Vitter are sponsoring bills to do just that).
Meanwhile, the NRA is drawing a bead on IANSA, whose member organizations are working in Africa, Latin America, parts of Asia and Europe. With a UN Small Arms Review Conference slated for June 2006, the group has been calling for international controls over what it says are the 639 million small arms and light weapons circulating in the world today. Since 2003 IANSA, Amnesty International and Oxfam have been promoting the idea. According to Oxfam, forty-two governments have signed on to the campaign. And on October 3, the EU for the first time threw its support behind calls for control.
Despite the NRA’s warnings that the international gun ban movement threatens the Second Amendment, Rebecca Peters says she isn’t aware of any plans to start a moratorium campaign in the US. And even if a UN treaty existed, the US Congress would have to ratify it, an unlikely proposition. Besides, says Cukier, there is no international gun-ban movement. “Dogs are registered in many countries,” she says, “but you don’t hear people saying anyone is trying to ban dogs.”