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Brazil Moves Towards Increasing Gun Control - 2003-07-22

Fed up with violence, Brazilians are once again pushing for more stringent gun control laws, and politicians are listening. Brazil's Senate is scheduled to vote Wednesday on a bill to increase restrictions prohibiting civilians from carrying guns on the street. The bill would also call for a national referendum banning the sale of firearms in Brazil.

Polls show most Brazilians would be supportive of such a measure.

Between 1979 and 2000, the reported rate of deaths by firearms in Brazil went up 213 percent. The World Health Organization said guns have already surpassed car accidents as the leading cause of violent death in the country - and Brazilians are worried. So worried that over 60 percent of Brazilians would favor a ban on carrying guns, according to the polling agency the Sensus Institute.

The bill would tighten restrictions on gun ownership by increasing the age at which Brazilians could own firearms from 18 to 25. Applicants would also have to pass a training course and a psychological exam. The measure would also transfer gun registrations from the state to the federal level. If Brazil's Congress passes the gun control measure, Brazilians would also get the chance to vote on banning gun sales in a national referendum in 2005.

Sociologist Antonio Rangel Bandeira of the organization Viva Rio, which supports the bill, said these limitations are much needed.

He said I received a permit that said I have the right to carry a gun. "I got it without even asking for it! Because I'm an authority figure. Do they know if I know how to shoot? Do they know whether I'm crazy? No," he said.

Mr. Rangel Bandeira added his personal experience is indicative of the loopholes and lax enforcement of Brazil's existing laws. He said more oversight is needed to find contraband weapons entering Brazil's ports and airports and to keep track of guns being transported between manufacturers, where many disappear. In addition, he said there is little scrutiny of the guns purchased by Brazil's numerous private security companies.

He said the number of security guards with all these private companies is larger than the number of Brazilian police. Just to give you an idea, in one year alone in Rio de Janeiro, 10,000 guns bought by these security companies disappeared.

Mr. Rangel Bandeira said collectors are permitted to buy new high-calibre weapons, not just antiques, another area he said should be examined. And he adds broader issues, like police training, can help address the popular belief that need to carry guns to protect themselves. He said even arms purchased legally make their way into criminals' hands.

"In a study of weapons seized at crime scenes by police, we found that 36 percent of these arms were purchased legally," Mr. Rangel Bandeira said. "But from there, through robberies or re-sales, they ended up in the hands of organized crime. That's the proof that legal arms sales need to be banned, or at least controlled."

But members of Congress who oppose the restrictions say the government cannot require responsible citizens to disarm. Brazil's Congress has considered other gun control bills in recent years, none of which have passed, but analysts say increased public anxiety about gun violence may bring a different outcome this time.