Brazil Holds Contentious Vote on Gun Control Law

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Advocates of the right to bear arms clash with those who say guns lead to chaos and violence ahead of Saturday's vote. An estimated 36,000 people were shot dead last year in Brazil.


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Tomorrow in Brazil, voters are set to decide on a divisive referendum that would prohibit the sale of firearms and ammunition to civilians. An estimated 36,000 people were shot dead last year in Brazil, four times more than in the United States. NPR's Julie McCarthy reports this campaign pits those who say Brazil is so dangerous, you should have the right to own a gun against those who say the proliferation of guns is the problem.

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JULIE McCARTHY reporting:

The camp to ban the sale of guns in Brazil samba and swivel their way down the promenade of Rio's fabled Copacabana beach. The festive crowd moves past life-size figures carved into the sand depicting the naked backsides of well-proportioned women. Citizens unfazed by the graphic art are incensed at what they call Rio's graphic violence.

Marialater Sosaloufish(ph) says enough empty promises about safer streets.

Ms. MARIALATER SOSALOUFISH (Rio Resident): (Foreign language spoken)

McCARTHY: `I'm against guns,' she says. `What we don't need is more violence. We want to live in dignity. We want a better Brazil,' she says.

Rubem Cesar Fernandes is the executive director of Viva Rio, one of the principal promoters of the gun ban. He points out that there are an estimated 17 million firearms in Brazil and says the referendum and gun controls recently signed into law would stem the proliferation.

Mr. RUBEM CESAR FERNANDES (Viva Rio): And the argument is that we have too many guns already, so stop supplying the market with new guns. Stop the flow. That's what this referendum is about.

McCARTHY: According to Health Ministry data, firearm-related deaths in Brazil fell last year for the first time in 13 years. Community policing efforts get credit, as does a campaign that encouraged owners to hand in 400,000 guns in a buy-back scheme. Yet Brazil continues to have the highest number of gun-related fatalities in the world, many of them in Brazil's favelas, the urban slums where wars are waged between drug dealers and police, with civilians gunned down in the cross-fire.

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McCARTHY: But in Rio's largest favela, many do not believe a gun ban will improve life. The headmistress of this newly opened day care center in Husinya(ph) says she'll vote no. `Anything prohibited is desired,' Louise Barbosa Delina(ph) says. `Besides,' she adds, `concentrating guns in the hands of police will do nothing to make residents feel more secure.'

Ms. LOUISE BARBOSA DELINA (Rio Resident): (Through Translator) No, we don't trust the police. The police doesn't respect us. The police does not respect the community. I have no confidence in the police.

McCARTHY: In fact, she says, people fear the police more than they do the armed gangs here. Authorities say many of their weapons are stolen from legal gun owners or procured on the black market. Brazil is a major exporter of guns and it's believed many are imported back illegally. Retired Colonel Jose Antonio Braga(ph, an expert in border control, says shutting down illegal gun traffic would be far more beneficial than removing firearms from law-abiding citizens.

Mr. JOSE ANTONIO BRAGA (Border Control Expert): (Through Translator) It's completely wrong in my way of thinking that the state has a right to decide whether I can or cannot carry or use a gun in my defense. The state has no--does not have the right to take away the right to bear arms of the common citizen.

McCARTHY: But Brazil's constitution provides no explicit right to bear arms. Legal experts say the right to self-defense is merely inferred in the guarantee to life, liberty and security, a guarantee that former national public security secretary Luis Eduardo Soares says is best fulfilled without guns. Soares spearheaded the YES campaign.

Mr. LUIS EDUARDO SOARES (Former National Public Security Secretary): We think that owning guns or firearms will not lead us to self-protection or to security but on the contrary, will lead us to barbarism, that to be even worse than the situation we have today.

McCARTHY: The contest is tightening, with the nos gaining ground. While the outcome of Sunday's referendum is uncertain, the turnout is not. Voting here is compulsory and some 115 million people are registered to vote.

Julie McCarthy, NPR News, Rio de Janeiro.

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