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Brazilians poised to reject gun ban, polls show

A referendum would ban most firearms and ammunition sales. The country has the world's second-highest gun death rate, UNESCO says.

By Associated Press
Published October 23, 2005

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil - A nationwide antigun referendum has stirred many Brazilians to defend a right they feel they deserve, although it's not guaranteed by their Constitution: The right to bear arms.

Just weeks ago, antigun advocates thought they'd win easily when they proposed a nationwide referendum to ban the sale of firearms in Brazil, which kill nearly 40,000 people a year.

But as some 122-million Brazilians prepare to vote today, polls show a majority are likely to oppose the ban.

"I'm going to vote no. Not because I have a gun or want to buy one, but because I think we have the right to buy guns to defend ourselves," said Maria Fatima da Silva, a 33-year-old social worker in Vila do Joao, one of the city's most violent shantytowns.

The referendum proposes banning the sale of firearms and ammunitions with special exception for police, the military, some security guards, gun collectors and sports shooters.

It is the last phase of a 2003 disarmament law that sharply restricted who could legally purchase firearms and who could carry guns in the streets.

That law, plus a government-sponsored gun buyback program, appears to have reduced the death toll from firearms by about 8 percent this year.

But the referendum may have backfired for those in favor of further reducing gun violence.

"What has happened is there has been a tremendous surge in demand for buying guns and stocking up on ammunition," said David Fleischer, a political science professor at the University of Brasilia. "There's been an upswing of people joining shooting clubs."

Before the referendum, support for the ban was running as high as 80 percent. But in the weeks before the referendum, both sides were granted free time to present their cases on prime-time TV, and the progun lobby began to grow.

In a survey released Wednesday by Toledo & Associates, 52 percent of those questioned said they would vote against the ban, while 34 percent would support it. The poll questioned 1,947 people in 11 Brazilian state capitals from Oct. 8 to 15, and had a margin of error of 2.2 percentage points.

"Most of the media supported the ban, so before the television spots, nobody gave it much thought, but when the progun lobby got equal time, the opinion really shifted," said Jessica Galeria, who researches gun violence for the Viva Rio think-tank. "They were smart, using images of Nelson Mandela, Tiananmen Square and the Berlin Wall to link owning a gun with freedom."

Mandela has reportedly threatened to sue the progun lobby for using his image in connection with the campaign.

Fleischer said the country's progun lobby successfully played on Brazilians' fears that the police can't protect them.

"The campaign for no is much better organized in terms of marketing and psychology. They ask the question; "Do you feel protected and do you think the government is protecting you?' and the answer is a violent no," said Fleischer.

According to UNESCO, Brazil ranks second in deaths by guns, with 21.72 per 100,000 people a year. Venezuela has 34.3 gun deaths per 100,000.

But in shantytowns like Vila do Joao, the rate rises to around 150 per 100,000. And for males between 17 and 24, the death rate is closer to 250 per 100,000.

Dr. David Meddings of the department of Violence and Injuries Prevention at the World Health Organization says violence in Brazil is worse than in many war zones.

"Deaths in conflict settings, particularly those that are highly visible and political conflicts, tend to receive fairly extensive press coverage. The actual underlying rates of death through violence may be much less than those seen in any number of Brazilian cities," Meddings said in an e-mail.

Despite the grim statistics, few in Vila do Joao seem to be in favor of the ban.

"Here we trust the drug traffickers more than the police. We don't need guns to protect ourselves here in the shantytown because the traffickers protect us, but we want guns to protect ourselves when we leave the shantytown," said Jomar da Silva Fonseca, a 26-year-old house painter.

[Last modified October 23, 2005, 01:21:14]

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