What the U.S. can learn from Brazil’s epidemic of gun violence

Brazil's battle against gun murders has implications for America's inner cities

By Nicholas Nehamas and Jose Luiz Brufatto de Oliveira

A school bus stands parked on the side of a road beside a flag lowered to half mast in honor of the victims of the Newtown shooting in Connecticut. (Reuters/Lucas Jackson)

A school bus stands parked on the side of a road beside a flag lowered to half mast in honor of the victims of the Newtown shooting in Connecticut. (Reuters/Lucas Jackson)

A man walks into an elementary school with two handguns. Within minutes, more than thirty children are dead or wounded.

This isn’t Newtown, Connecticut, but Realengo, a neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. On April 7th, 2011, Wellington Oliveira murdered twelve children and wounded twenty others. The tragedy sparked a national conversation on gun violence, a huge problem in Brazil.

On Wednesday, in reaction to a different massacre, President Obama proposed a series of gun control measures he says will reduce gun deaths in America. Whether a recalcitrant Congress and vocal gun lobby will let those proposals become law is unclear.

Fact number 1: Brazil has the most gun murders in the world (around 36,000 people in 2010), but the U.S. has the most among industrialized nations (9,146).

Fact number 2: in 2011 Brazil was the number one supplier of guns to the U.S.

Brazil: a case worth studying

“More people are killed every year in Brazil through intentional violence than anywhere else on the planet, including most of the world’s war zones combined,” says Robert Muggah, research director of the Igarapé Institute, a think-tank in Rio that studies the interaction between violence and the drug trade.

The great majority of these deaths, Muggah explains, are “concentrated amongst relatively poor to very poor, lower-class, often black or minority-type groups in densely populated, under-serviced areas known as favelas.”

In the U.S., we call them ghettos.

Despite the media spotlight drawn by tragedies like Newtown and Aurora, ghettos are where most of America’s gun violence takes place. America’s rate of gun murders is 3.3 per 100,000 people, the highest in the developed world. Brazil, whose worst favelas Muggah compares to conditions in Somalia or the Congo, has a much higher rate of 18.1.

The irony? Brazil actually has much stronger gun control laws than the U.S.

If the system is broke, fix it

Brazil’s strict stance on guns comes from a long and painful history of urban violence.

Until the 1980’s, Brazil and the U.S. had comparable homicide rates. Then crack cocaine invaded Brazil’s cities, setting off a fatal ripple effect. Criminals sold the drug and used their profits to buy guns. Gang warfare erupted, with police sometimes fighting the drug lords and sometimes helping them. The rich moved into gated communities surrounded by barbed wire and purchased private arsenals for protection. By the mid-to-late 1990’s, Muggah says, “Rio had become almost uninhabitable, Recife was in flames, Sao Paolo had entered full-scale crisis mode.”

A gun control movement was born and in 2003 the government passed a law called the Disarmament Statue which, among other restrictions, limited who could buy and sell guns, and prevented civilians from carrying them in public. The new law built on previous regulations that mandated background checks and registration of weapons. Gun sales dropped, and firearm deaths fell from nearly 40,000 in 2003 to a little over 34,000 in 2004.

Police officers during a shootout with drug traffickers in the Vila Cruzeiro favela in Rio de Janeiro in 2010. (Reuters/Bruno Domingos)

Police officers during a shootout with drug traffickers in the Vila Cruzeiro favela in Rio de Janeiro in 2010. (Reuters/Bruno Domingos)

But Muggah says a lack of cooperation between state and federal police, as well as corruption in the gun trade, has hindered Brazil’s efforts to keep its estimated 20 million legal and illegal guns out of criminal hands.

Weapons exported to Paraguay and Colombia by Brazil’s powerful gun industry are smuggled back into the country. Others are stolen by criminals or sold to them by crooked Brazilian soldiers, cops and firefighters (yes, firefighters carry guns in Brazil).

A growing firearm industry

No country sold more guns to the U.S. in 2011 than Brazil — 846,000, or approximately 26 percent of all imports that year. And the Brazilian companies are thinking of producing inside the U.S. too. The New York Times reported that Forja Taurus, a Brazilian manufacturing conglomerate, was interested in buying the U.S. company that makes the AR-15 rifle used in the Newtown shooting.

Naturally, the NRA has taken an interest in gun control in Brazil. According to gun control activists, the NRA was instrumental in helping Brazil’s gun lobby defeat a 2005 referendum that would have banned civilians  from purchasing arms and ammunition.

Robert Muggah argues that Brazil’s experience can help the U.S. understand how to stop criminals from getting guns.

For one, Muggah argues that the problems of favelas are not uncommon in the U.S., even if their scale is much greater.

“If you were to look at Detroit or Chicago or DC [instead of Rio or Sao Paulo or Recife],” he says, “you’d see high socio-economic disparity, rapid rates of poorly regulated urbanization, the introduction, retail and consumption of drugs, police brutality. All these things create a cocktail of violent outcomes.”

From Rio to LA: three steps

Muggah points to three concrete steps U.S. authorities could take at local, state, and federal levels.

One would be to ensure guns are registered and marked at the time of purchase. In the U.S., this would mean no more “gun show loophole,” which allows an estimated 40 percent of guns to be sold without a background check. Muggah says a study in Brazil showed that a small number of legal retailers sold many of the weapons used by criminals and later confiscated by police.

“I suspect the same thing applies to the U.S.,” Muggah says. “There’s probably a large proportion of gun sellers that are legitimate and playing by the books and a very small proportion that are responsible for a very large amount of illegal weapons on the streets.”

In fact, one of President Obama’s proposals called for better tracing of firearms.

Robert Muggah, a security expert at the Igarape Institute in Rio. He was previously research director of the Small Arms Survey in Geneva. (Igarape Institute)

Robert Muggah, a security expert at the Igarape Institute in Rio. He was previously research director of the Small Arms Survey in Geneva. (Courtesy: Igarape Institute)

The second would be to invest even more in “community policing,” or stationing police in small outposts in dangerous neighborhoods instead of just asking them to patrol the streets in squad cars. That’s actually an American innovation that Brazilian police adapted from New York and other American cities. But authorities in Sao Paulo and Rio have followed up better policing with a system known as UPP Social, which promotes urban revitalization: better services, new roads, community outreach.

“It’s the kind of model that would probably resonate in parts of Los Angeles, Detroit and Chicago,” he says. “There certainly could be a reverse transfer of policy back from Brazil. ”

Finally, Muggah argues that it’s essential for the U.S. to change a gun culture that fetishizes weapons and better understand the risks gun ownership poses to public health.

America is the only country in the world that considers owning a gun a basic right. In Brazil and other countries, while people keep guns for protection just as they do in the U.S., owning a weapon is considered a privilege, not a right—though this philosophical gap is narrowing as the NRA grows more influential abroad.

“The debate in the U.S. around rights versus privilege,” Muggah says,” infuses the texts of international treaties and ultimately has an impact on domestic politics in other countries, often to the detriment of societies that are seeking to promote more evidence-based and safety-minded policies on gun regulation.”