Disarming Brazil: Lessons and Challenges

March 6, 2008

In the film Bowling for Columbine, Michael Moore set up the audience to be shocked by statistics of gun deaths around the world. He began with Japan, which has only a handful of gun-related homicides each year. He then cited some European figures, only slightly higher. Then he leaped to the United States, with its 10,000 yearly firearm deaths. The effect was nice, but Moore left out an important country, right here in the western hemisphere: Brazil, whose yearly number of gun deaths averages close to 40,000. And Brazil’s population is only half that of the United States.

Brazil is not a country at war in the conventional sense. But its deaths by weapons rival the world’s worst war zones. In the same four years that Sarajevo was under siege, three times as many people were killed in Rio by weapons. Brazil has 2.8% of the world’s population but claims 13% of its yearly firearms deaths. According to a study on firearm-related violence by the University of São Paulo, 325,000 Brazilians were killed between 1993 and 2003.

This crisis has been met by an innovative disarmament campaign that specialists around the world have watched closely, looking for what has worked and what hasn’t. Although the campaign peaked in the autumn of 2005, after a total ban on gun sales to civilians was voted down in a national referendum, there are several new gun control laws in Brazil as a result of the campaign.

The effort began in 1997, when law students from the University of São Paulo launched the Sou da Paz for Disarmament Campaign, the first civil society initiative to raise awareness about the rapid growth of urban violence and the need for arms control. Two years later, the NGO Instituto Sou da Paz was formed and would become one of the movement’s main hubs. In Rio, the large grassroots NGO Viva Rio, famous for its popular peace campaigns and direct service projects in the favelas, was the other key node in the movement. Smaller organizations around the country also participated, and together these groups helped mobilize public awareness campaigns on the need for civil disarmament.

Popular campaigns for small-arms control around the world, like those that occurred in Albania, Cambodia, and Liberia, are usually a mixture of public events, media exposure, and, most importantly, research. From 1997 on, Sou da Paz and Viva Rio produced a steady flow of well-documented reports to Brazilian legislators showing that stricter gun controls would seriously reduce mortality rates.

In the late 1990s dozens of legislative bills for gun control were introduced in the Brazilian National Congress. The struggle to get these bills passed was difficult because so many politicians were allied with the national gun lobby. But finally, at the end of 2003, the research had convinced a critical mass of legislators, and Congress passed the Disarmament Statute, which gathered many previous gun control ideas. The statute increased the minimum gun-purchasing age from 21 to 25 and established mandatory psychological and firearms-proficiency tests for buyers. Most importantly, it prohibited civilians from carrying guns. Gun owners could keep weapons at home or work, but one could only possess a firearm in public under special conditions, like hunting.

The statute also established a national firearms database under the authority of the Federal Police and introduced new measures for controlling ammunition. Only legally registered arms dealers could sell ammunition, and all rounds had to be marked and identified to facilitate tracing. Given the record of police violence in Brazil, the law also established that all bullets used by public security forces be marked. For the first time in South America, the informal trafficking of firearms would be a federal crime instead of simply an issue of contraband. Illegal possession would now be a crime without the possibility of bail, with two to four years of prison time. Finally, the statute called for a national referendum instituting an outright ban on gun sales to civilians.

This would be the first special referendum in the history of Brazil—where all adults are legal required to vote­—on any matter, let alone on an issue as urgent as gun control. Though the disarmament campaign failed to convince most Brazilians to vote for the gun ban, its efforts were nonetheless instructive.


In the period leading up to the referendum, Viva Rio’s team of researchers tailored its findings to the group’s three main disarmament strategies: reducing the demand for guns, reducing the supply, and improving stockpile controls. One of the main goals of the research was to publicize statistics on who was most affected by the proliferation of small arms and light weapons. This goal is commonly thought of in disarmament circles as showing the humanitarian impact of guns.

Although it was no surprise that young men of color in favela communities were most at risk because of armed confrontations with rival drug gangs and police forces, it was the sheer numbers of gun-related deaths that made the biggest impact. For young, black men between the ages of 15 and 29 living in the favelas, the homicide-by-guns ratio was 240 for every 100,000 people. That’s a figure similar to a country in a full state of war.

Besides the focus on victimization, Viva Rio and Sou da Paz were also able to demonstrate the considerable consequences that firearms have on families, communities, local economies, and public health systems. For example, for every person shot and killed in the world by a gun, three more are wounded. The number of wounded was one of the major hidden statistics of Brazilian gun violence, and the numbers seemed to suggest that Brazil’s wounded numbered as many as three times the world average. Casting gun violence as a general public health problem helped people see the larger ramifications. Studies began to look specifically at the effect of armed violence on children in the favelas, with comparisons to child soldiers in other parts of the world. Bringing children into the picture convinced many of the dire need to search for solutions.

In June 2000, Viva Rio launched a national peace campaign called Basta! Eu Quero Paz (Enough! I Want Peace). This campaign responded to a botched bus hijacking in Rio that ended with millions of viewers watching the live shooting of the hostage on television. This event became memorialized in the documentary film Bus 174. During the Basta! movement an enormous wall of family photos of loved ones murdered with guns went up at Praça Carioca in downtown Rio. This spontaneous memorial, called the Mural of Pain, suddenly made it possible to visualize Rio’s thousands of homicide victims. The mural eventually traveled to the halls of the Brazilian National Congress and even to the United Nations during the first UN-­sponsored international conference on small arms and light weapons. This is, in effect, how small-arms disarmament campaigns work—research serves as the base, informing and legitimizing political lobbying, marches, and media representation.

The Viva Rio team also debunked two important myths about the proliferation of small arms in Brazil: that most of the weapons in Brazil were foreign made, and that the majority of homicides were carried out with large semi-­automatic assault weapons, as it would seem from much of the sensationalized press coverage of armed confrontations in the favelas. New research showed that, in fact, 70% of all guns confiscated by the police were small-caliber handguns domestically made by two large gun makers, Taurus and Rossi, in the south of Brazil. To the surprise of many, Brazil was actually the second-largest arms industry in the Americas and the sixth largest in the world. No one knew the number of guns circulating in Brazil—in the hands of police, private security forces, legal owners, unregistered owners, and criminals—until this research gave an estimate of 17 million. Sou da Paz found that 90% of these guns were in the hands of civilians.

Research further demonstrated that more than half of confiscated weapons had originally been legally purchased and somehow entered the illegal market. Moreover, Viva Rio’s research tried to break the prevailing ­notion that owning a gun provides personal safety. Their team showed that gun owners were four times more likely to be the victims of gun violence than those who did not own guns. And despite the perception that most gun homicides were committed in the favelas, the numbers showed that half of all Brazilian homicides were carried out by people with no previous criminal record and that gun violence usually occurs between people who know each other. In other words, without available guns, these conflicts might have been resolved without lethal violence.

The fact that so many guns were already circulating presented a different set of problems and the need for a third strategy. Rio police, this research revealed, were confiscating 10,000 weapons a year. When researchers started to look at the annual homicide maps in Rio, they noticed that murders by firearms seemed to cluster where the police were stockpiling confiscated weapons. This seemed to suggest that the guns were leaking or being rented out by the police. When researchers started to trace weapons by serial numbers, they discovered that some weapons were already previously registered as being confiscated by the police. This piece of research was influential in getting the Disarmament Statute passed, and it also helped pass a new law that the ­Federal Police in Brazil could now only hold confiscated weapons for a maximum of five years for forensic investigation purposes;­ the remaining weapons had to be destroyed. But this very research would also come back to haunt the pro-disarmament­ side during the 2005 referendum.­


In the years leading up to the disarmament statute, Viva Rio and Sou da Paz kept the issues burning with several campaigns involving publicly destroying guns, holding marches and street demonstrations, and collecting signatures. One of these events drew as many as 50,000 people who marched along the beach in Rio. Even in the favela communities, popular hip-hop groups staged free monthly concerts and talked about peace and disarmament between songs. One Viva Rio campaign called “Choose Gun Free, It’s Your Weapon or Me!” challenged women to pressure their husbands, sons, boyfriends, brothers, and friends to disarm. This particular campaign was very media savvy, with cutting-edge commercials featuring the most famous female Brazilian soap opera stars in witty and seductive scenes in which they called upon women to use their influence in the disarmament movement. Script writers even wove the issues into the nightly soaps.

In June of 2001, Viva Rio staged the largest simultaneous gun destruction ever carried out in the world in a single day. Working closely with the Federal Police and the State of Rio de Janeiro security office to make it seem like this was their media event, 100,000 stockpiled weapons were laid out near the beach and destroyed by a steam roller and later melted down. One year later, Viva Rio joined with the London-based International Action Network on Small Arms (IANSA) to stage another event on the beach where 10,000 more stockpiled weapons were destroyed. From this day on, June 9 would become the International Small Arms Destruction Day.

The movement’s research and social action on the effects of gun violence, the legal and illegal trafficking of weapons, and the destruction of excess guns came together in the Disarmament Statute, which provided for a weapon buyback program involving federal and municipal governments and civil society. From July 2004 to October 2005, 470,000 guns were voluntarily handed in for a symbolic compensation of up to $100. This was the second-largest buyback campaign ever conducted in the world. Weapons were cataloged and immediately destroyed with sledgehammers, to dispel any notion that they would end up in police stockpiles. Civil disarmament committees also facilitated handovers. The mobilization of the churches was key here, especially in the favelas because people trusted the church when they handed over their weapons. In São Paulo, Sou da Paz organized more than 1,000 collection sites where 110,000 weapons were turned over.


The Brazilian disarmament campaign was one of the most comprehensive movements ever carried out for gun control. National polls showed that 82% of Brazilians supported the Disarmament Statute. How many actually supported the referendum’s ban on all gun commerce was another matter. In the months leading up to the referendum, various polls showed that most Brazilians, as much as 65%, favored the ban. The two sides squared off, and the disarmament supporters, led by key congressmen and civil society leaders, organized themselves into the “Sim” or “Yes” front, which defended the ban with their slogan “Por um Brazil Sem Armas” (For a Brazil Without Guns). The gun lobby, which also included many members of congress, the gun industry, and a strong conservative base from Brazil’s southernmost states with a traditional culture of gun ownership and hunting became the “Não” side or “No” vote under the banner “Pela Legitima Defensa” (For Legitimate Defense).

The referendum was a historic event for Brazilian democracy. And among the interested parties watching from the outside was the U.S.-based National Rifle Association. The Brazilian gun industry is a $100 million-a-year business, with 60% of its revenues from exports, mainly to the United States. The director of the NRA himself came to Brazil to meet with the gun lobby and to consult on strategies to defeat the referendum. The NRA stated that the referendum was a crucial part of the global, gun-ban lobby, intent to deny U.S. citizens their constitutional right to bear arms.

The Brazilian constitution nowhere guarantees Brazilians the right to own weapons. Yet the NRA succeeded in influencing the vote by consistently delivering the message that Brazilian citizens would lose a fundamental right if they voted Yes. By law, each side was allowed 20 days of mainstream media exposure just before the vote to convey their message. In those few weeks, Brazilians were exposed to all manner of endorsements, newspaper articles, editorials, magazine articles, talk show debates, expert panel discussions, and television commercials. Although most Brazilians supported the gun ban a few weeks before the vote, the numbers were essentially reversed by the day of the referendum, when 65% of 95 million citizens voted No. This was a stunning defeat for the disarmament campaign, at least for their capstone piece of legislation. In retrospect, there are some lessons to be learned from those 20 days of media exposure.

Throughout the few weeks of media time, the gun lobby’s message was simple but effective. In fact, they rarely mentioned guns or violence. When they did, they stressed the need for guns to provide personal safety. Their message was “You may not want a gun today, but no one can tell what tomorrow may bring.” Guns are not only for self-defense, they argued, but for protecting loved ones. The gun lobby also exploited the lack of faith in the police to provide public security. In this, the No campaign turned the stockpile research of Viva Rio on its head and argued that if there were a total ban on arms commerce, the police would create a black market of their own.

The gun lobby even pointed to the Disarmament Statute claiming that it was working to reduce the number of firearm related deaths and there was no need for a total ban on arms sales. This was another means of using the disarmament campaign’s own research for the gun lobby’s benefit. Before the vote, Viva Rio and Sou da Paz had released new research figures that the Statute was effectively making an impact on the number of homicides. In 2003 the firearm homicide rate dropped by 3,234 people, the first significant decrease in 13 years.

But the gun lobby’s most powerful and consistent message was one of rights. After 20 years of a dictatorship, did anyone want their rights taken away? The issue hit home. By contrast, the Yes campaign produced various messages using advertisements featuring celebrities and musicians, thinking that voters would respond to intellectuals from popular culture. Many of their advertisements expressed their research conclusions, which only seemed to cloud the issue, compared to a simple decision concerning rights. Realizing that public opinion was changing midway through the three weeks of media time, the Yes campaign revamped its messages and style, ­attempting to create a more simple argument that the Brazilian gun industry was profiting from the country’s violence. But it was too late. Their mixed messages could not compete with a single clear message of rights.

The greater political context of the vote was also a serious factor. The referendum came at a time of intense media criticism of the national government. For several months, various political scandals were unfolding around the administration and the ruling Workers Party of President Luis Inácio Lula da Silva. Evidence of bribery, vote buying, illegal campaign donations, and even money laundering were surfacing and forcing several high-ranking administrators out of office. Although none of the scandals were related to the Disarmament Statute, the referendum offered an indirect means for people to express their disgust with corruption.

Even though the disarmament campaign lost the referendum, it was a historic movement watched by many people all over the world. And to date, there have been many successful outcomes from the movement. In the first year of the Statute, there was a massive drop in the number of legal gun purchases because of all the new minimum requirements. Sou da Paz reported that in the year before the statute, 7,387 guns were newly registered in the state of São Paulo. After the first year of the new requirements, there were only 2,064 registration requests in the state and only 16 were granted. Overall, the legal commerce of firearms dropped by 92%, forcing many gun shops out of business.­

Yet this struggle for gun control is far from over. Viva Rio and Sou da Paz have continued their research, building up their shared database and raising awareness of the risks associated with small arms. Viva Rio has also created a network of NGOs among the MERCOSUR countries (Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Paraguay, and Uruguay) to work on regional disarmament issues. In support of this new regional consciousness, two important Web portals were launched in Portuguese and Spanish by Viva Rio on disarmament and human security: www.desarme.org and www.comunidade­segura.org.br. The Brazilian disarmament movement is now moving into its post-referendum phase, and there is still much work to do on the many other issues connected to small arms. Guns are only part of a much larger story about the persistence of violence in Brazil.

Peter Lucas teaches international human rights at New York University and the New School. His research focuses on human rights, media, and visual inclusion in Brazil. He recently co-authored a curriculum on nonproliferation and disarmament for the UN Department of Disarmament Affairs and Cyber School Bus, at www.cyberschoolbus.un.org/dnp.
Tags: Brazil, violence, arms trade, guns, disarmament, favelas, Viva Rio, NRA

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