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Last Updated: Sunday, 23 October 2005, 07:42 GMT 08:42 UK
Brazilians take positions on gun vote
Brazilian campaign poster against banning gun sales supplied by a farmers' group
Farmers say they need guns to defend themselves and their property
Brazil, where one person is killed with a firearm every 15 minutes, is holding an unprecedented national referendum on banning gun sales.

Many landowners, who often live in remote areas out of the reach of law enforcement agencies, are fighting hard for a No vote. Opinion polls suggest the comfortable lead earlier allocated to the Yes vote has now been eroded.

The head of the parliamentary Commission of Agriculture, deputy Xico Graziano, said landowners needed weapons in part to guard against "bandits and assailants", many of whom he said had infiltrated the country's militant, million-strong landless movement, the MST.

But civil groups point out that firearm deaths have fallen since a successful gun buy-back scheme was introduced in late 2003. They say violence-weary Brazilians are beginning to understand that a safer country means fewer weapons.

Land dispute

The 23 October referendum looms against a backdrop of a new wave of assaults by members of the MST on land they say is unproductive and which the constitution therefore allows them to claim. This has heightened the anger of the landowners.

I defend the farmers and rural workers who are out of the reach of public security
Lawmaker Xico Graziano

"The MST knocks down fences and invades rural estates without any respect for the law. They select the farms, according to their own criteria, and simply seize them, demanding from the government that they must be appropriated in the name of land reform," said Mr Graziano - a deputy himself and former head of the governmental Agrarian Reform Institute (Incra).

"In the past, up until a decade ago, such areas were indeed generally lying idle - those latifundios [landed estates]. But today, the majority of farms are productive, thanks to the far-reaching technological modernisation that has occurred in the sector," he said.

According to a recent article by Jonne Roriz in the country's leading news magazine Veja, "without weapons, [landowners and farmers] would... lose a powerful instrument of dissuasion to prevent invasions by the MST".

Should sales of firearms and ammunition be prohibited in Brazil?
Mr Graziano is reluctant to draw a direct link between the landowners' demand to keep weapons and the renewed campaign by the MST to grab land, saying that like other Brazilians, landowners need guns for self-defence in the face of the crime wave which has swept Brazil over recent years.

But he does allege that the MST has been infiltrated by many of the common criminals - the "bandits and assailants" - he fears.

"I defend the farmers and rural workers who are out of the reach of public security," he said.

Landowners 'not victims'

A key backer of the MST, the Pastoral Land Commission, disputes the idea that landowners are the victims of the landless peasants.

Opinion polls asking: Should gun sales be banned?
Yes: 73%; No: 24%
(Source: CNT-Sensus, 13 September)
Yes: 45%; No: 49%
(Source: IBOPE, 15 October)
Yes: 34%; No: 52%
(Source: Toledo & Associados, 19 October)
It points to the state of Para, where Brazil's conflict over land is at its most acute. Fourteen of the 28 violent deaths attributed to clashes over land in the first half of 2005 happened in Para - but most of the victims were landless peasants, trade unionists and Indians, it says.

"I don't think the solution to the land problem in Brazil is through weapons," Josephine Bourgois at Viva Rio, a leading human rights group campaigning for a ban on gun sales, told the BBC News website.

She says the real victims of the widespread prevalence of firearms are young men, mainly in the cities, among whom bullet injuries are the leading cause of death.

She also disputes the notion that "gun crime is the preserve of criminals whose faces are on Wanted posters".

Chico Buarque appears in Yes campaign material
Famed musician Chico Buarque is among the Yes ("Sim") supporters

"In fact," she says, "violence is a lot more of a complicated phenomenon than that. It's common citizens involved in road rage, jealousy... it's a discussion in a bar which turns nasty. It's a form of conflict resolution with a weapon."

There are more firearm-related deaths in Brazil than any other country - 36,091 in 2004. This referendum is the latest phase in a gun law passed by Congress in 2003 to try to tackle the problem.

Voting is obligatory, and it is the first occasion that gun sales laws have been decided by a national vote.

Opinion polls in August and September gave a healthy lead to supporters of the ban, but the latest poll suggests the No camp has an edge. With supporters and opponents given daily slots on TV and radio to argue their case, the debate continues to rage.

See the weapons recently returned in a gun amnesty

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