Brazil's Strict Gun Laws Haven't Stopped Its Killers

(Bloomberg View) -- André Bevilaqua is no stranger to guns. He hunted as a kid, and carrying was a part of the protocol when he auctioned confiscated property at the regional court, where debtors frequently demurred. But when the Rio de Janeiro attorney set out to buy a .380 caliber pistol last year, he hit a rainforest of red tape that only a Brazilian bureaucrat could love.

A year later -- after a thicket of questionnaires, hefty fees, a criminal background check, a psychological evaluation, a written exam and a shooting test, and a house call by three firearms inspectors -- the armed forces finally green-lighted his purchase. I heard the contorted tale as I tagged along with Bevilaqua to the gun shop last weekend to pick up his gun.

That’s the drill in Brazil, where law-abiding folk submit to a state-stewarded via crucis in the name of public safety. Meanwhile, it’s de facto open carry for the busy criminals who’ve turned Brazil into a continental kill zone.

Bevilaqua doesn’t complain. He knows that a gun in every home is no way to stanch the bloodbath that has earned these latitudes a leading role in global gun violence and driven the federal government to put armed forces in the streets of its signature city.

If only Latin America’s biggest nation could apply its Promethean pencil-pushing to the tragedy that is deleting its future. Latin America is home to 43 of the world’s 50 most murderous cities: 19 of them are in Brazil.  

Global terrorism might have claimed more than 3,300 lives globally in the first half of 2015; Brazil trumped that body count in just three weeks. No country registered more murders that year: 60,000.

Those numbers alone would suggest the need for more restrictive gun laws. Scholars reckon that thanks to controls written into the 2003 disarmament statute, Brazil avoided 135,000 homicides through 2007. So it’s hard to buy the current proposals championed by gun lobbyists and a few political yahoos who aim to make Brazil safer by slackening controls.

“More arms in circulation mean more gun crimes,” Daniel Cerqueira, an expert on criminal violence at Brazil’s Institute for Applied Economic Research, told me. In a study of Sao Paulo townships, Cerqueira found that every percentage point increase of guns in circulation resulted in a 2 percent increase in homicides.

Yet the nexus between legal guns and violent crime is more complicated. Yes, most of the arms seized in criminal acts in Brazil were sold clean and then ended up in outlaw hands. Still, putting a tourniquet on commercial handguns does nothing to stop the leak to the criminal underworld, and seems a ham-handed way to tackle broader problems, like arms smuggling, cross-border crime cartels, and especially crooked cops who feed the black market. “Brazil is a sieve,” said Bevilaqua. “Everything passes through.”

Look no further than Rio, where in the words of Justice Minister Torquato Jardim, “Police commanders are partners in organized crime.” In 2015, Rio authorities traced a surprising number of weapons seized at crime scenes to a handful of private security firms, owned -- legally, as it turns out -- by active police officers. 

Two more key issues ought to get more attention in the often overwrought public debate over guns and violence: administrative continuity and fiscal health. Both vary dramatically across Brazil, and their absence can condemn entire regions to turmoil, fear and economic blight.

Homicides have plunged dramatically in Sao Paulo, where public finances are in order, police are paid on time and policy and governing strategy have remained consistent for the past two decades.

Compare that with Rio de Janeiro state, where a tainted and spendthrift governing class steadily pillaged state finances, junking public services, gutting police wages and pauperizing a model community safety program. The result: After nearly a decade of falling violence, Rio’s homicide rate is again spiking. “Rio is a great big broken window,” political scientist Fernando Schuler, from the Sao Paulo university Insper, told me, referring to the urban crime theory that small crimes left unchecked lead to a crisis in public order. It’s much the same in traditionally prosperous Rio Grande do Sul, the southernmost state which declared “financial calamity” in 2016, and saw the homicide rate jump 20 percent that year to 53 per 100,000 inhabitants in Porto Alegre, the fifth highest among 27 Brazilian regional capitals.

“Violence and the quality of governing institutions are inseparable parts of the debate,” former secretary of public safety of the city of Belo Horizonte Claudio Beato, now at Columbia University, told me. “Public safety totally depends on the health of the state enforcing the law, and in Brazil the state has mostly failed.”

Gun violence may well be a national epidemic but, as with income and education, the toll is borne unevenly in a country fractured by class, race, age and gender. In Brazil, as in most countries, homicide is a young man’s disease, and one where both victims and perpetrators are disproportionately black and poor -- a problem that a one-size-fits-all gun law can’t resolve.

Still, Brazilians need to disarm. “These days, when we’re all living on edge, misunderstandings and fear can easily explode into confrontation, and more guns will mean more tragedies,” Antonio Carlos Carballo, a retired police colonel, said to me in an interview.

More than a gun fetish, mistrust of the state’s sentinels was what drove Brazilians to reject a ban on commercial handgun sales in a 2006 referendum. The same sentiment has flared anew, as firearm crimes again rise, swelling cries by private groups who put more faith in their pieces than their peacekeepers.

That’s a long-term challenge no fiat from Brazil’s intrepid bureaucrats can fix.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Mac Margolis writes about Latin America for Bloomberg View. He was a reporter for Newsweek and is the author of “The Last New World: The Conquest of the Amazon Frontier.”

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