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Last Updated: Thursday, 24 July, 2003, 08:00 GMT 09:00 UK
Brazil seeks to curb gun crime
Denize Bacoccina
In Sao Paulo

Brazil's Senate has approved a bill to tighten restrictions on the ownership and use of firearms, in an effort to rein in rampant gun crime.

With one of the highest murder rates in the world - an average of 26 per 100,000 people each year - Brazil is trying to disarm its population as a way of reducing the death toll.

Handgun, Corbis
The aim is to move towards a complete ban on civilian gun use
Among people between 19 and 25, the rate goes up to 150. Most of the victims are poor - and 20% are killed by the police, either in confrontations or in executions.

The richer south is also where crime is higher: an average of 50.7 people are killed per 100,000 in Sao Paulo State and even higher - 54.2 - in Rio State.

The young are not only the victims. Men between the ages of 17 and 24 are also the ones who commit the crimes.

By comparison, in the United States, the annual murder rate is between nine and 11 per 100,000.

The legislation backed by the Senate was unanimously approved by a mixed (with members of Senate and the Lower House) commission on 17 July.

The proposal must still be approved by lower chamber of Congress, which is expected to vote on it in August.

The bill, called the Disarmament Statute, is a compilation of more than 70 proposals made since 1997.

It will make it more difficult to get a licence to buy and have permission to use a gun in Brazil. The present legislation is already restrictive, but the idea is to move towards a complete ban on all guns for civilian use, as in Britain.

According to the bill, the complete ban on sales will be decided in a popular referendum to be held in October 2005.

Pro-gun lobby

The final text of the bill was widely negotiated and accommodates all the different proposals making it not as radical as some would like.

Some say the new legislation does not go far enough towards banning the sale of guns, because the pro-gun lobby is very strong.

We have to compete with the criminal gangs for these guns
Bill sponsor Luiz Eduardo Greenhalgh
That lobby is organised by Taurus, a Brazilian handgun manufacturer that is one of the three biggest in the world and sells to more than 70 countries - including a subsidiary in Florida, in the US.

Federal deputy Luiz Eduardo Greenhalgh, responsible for the final version of the bill, expects the new law to be approved by President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in August, and to take effect immediately.

"There is an agreement between the different party leaders, so we believe that the bill will be approved in its original text without any problem", says Mr Greenhalgh.

One novelty in the law is a buy-back scheme. Mr Greenhalgh defends it, saying that it is the way to take off the streets the guns that otherwise would end up with criminals.

"We have to compete with the criminal gangs for these guns," he says.

'Political will'

There are an estimated five million licensed guns in Brazil. But another three million are illegal, according to the police.

In Sao Paulo State alone - the biggest and most important - there is one gun per 74.5 inhabitants.

Whether the ownership of guns protects the people or increases violence has been the subject of a national debate in Brazil for some years.

How is it then that the bill was approved in such a short time?

Mr Greenhalgh says that this time there was the "political will" to do so, after Brazilians became tired of the upsurge in violence and convinced that something should be done.

But not everyone agrees that there is a link between gun ownership and violence.

Some point out that while violence is on the rise, the number of gun licences has gone down in recent years.


In fact, both arguments are correct. According to police statistics, most guns - 95% of the total - used in crimes are illegal.

They get into criminal hands either via smuggling or have simply been stolen from citizens who bought them legally.

Following this argument, the prohibition of sale would stop this. On the other hand, smuggling would still go on.

To reduce that, it is necessary to increase policing on the borders. Most illegal guns come from Paraguay, a country that does not have a gun industry.

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