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For each head, a sentence

Referendum on weapons calls for a debate of disarmed minds

The referendum on the prohibition of the arms trade for civilians happens this month, but the dilemma over the decision is far older “To be, or not to be: that is the question: Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them?”, Hamlet was already asking. Even if surveys, like the one by Unesco (Deaths by Firearms in Brazil), reveal that there is something rotten in the state of Brazil, where, between 1979 and 2003, over 550 thousand persons died as victims of firearms (a mortality rate that exceeds deaths in road accidents), the question presents itself as a palindrome inside-out, in which each head has its own sentence: more arms, less crimes; less arms, more crimes.

“In Brazil, an increase in the demand for firearms has been occurring, since the population has sought in weapons an answer to the lack of security”, explains Maria Fernanda Tourinho, a researcher from the Studies of Violence Nucleus (NEV-USP) and the coordinator of the survey Violence by firearms in Brazil. “The prohibition should be accompanied by an incentive for reducing the demand for arms, and not just the reduction of the supply”, she warns. The private stock of firearms in the country is considerable: 15.1 million. Of these, it is estimated that 6.7 million are registered, 4.6 million without any formalities, and 3.8 million are with criminals, claims Pablo Dreyfus, the coordinator of the Viva Rio/Iser Arms Control Project.

Internally, though, the success of the arms companies has had a high cost. “Brazil manages to exterminate more citizens by the use of firearms than many conflicts, like the Gulf War or several intifadas”, reveals Julio Jacobo Waiselfisz, the author of Unesco’s study. Between 1979 and 2003, victims went up 461.8%, while the population grew 51.8%: the main causes of death in Brazil are, in order: heart diseases, cerebrovascular diseases, and firearms. Of the 550 thousand deaths, 44.1% were of youngsters of between 15 and 24 years old: of every three youngsters killed, one was by a firearm. With a rate of 21.6 deaths per 100 thousand inhabitants, Brazil loses to the United States, which, with its weapon culture, has a rate of 10.3 deaths per 100 thousand inhabitants.

The figures impress, but is arms control effective? The report “Lives saved” by the Ministries of Health and Justice, reckons that it is. The data was obtained after the handing in of firearms that started in 2004 (450 thousand weapons were received). “The strategy of disarmament not only annulled the previous annual trend of a 7.2% growth, but it also originated a fall of 8.2% in the number of deaths registered in 2003. The movement generated a 15.4% reduction in deaths from firearms, preventing, in 2004 alone, 5,563 deaths”, the survey says. Defendants of the prohibition are less optimistic. “We must be careful with the indicators of disarmament. Reduction in criminality is for the long term”, Fernanda notes.

According to her, prohibition in isolation is insufficient. “The determinant factors of demand have to be acted on, the population has to be made to feel secure, the police qualified, and the illegal arms market blocked.” Here is an important point. “The authorities do not know where half the firearms in the country are, nor who owns them”, Dreyfus reckons. Accordingly, there is a social division about over disarmament. “The defendants of arms say that the ideal would be for ‘decent people’ to be armed and the bandits not, and see an inversion in the process, a division between ‘arms for good’ and ‘arms for ill’, which is a fallacy”, in the analysis of Ignácio Cano, from the Rio de Janeiro State University. According to the antiprohibitionists, disarmament would eliminate the “arms for good”, while being innocuous against the “arms for ill”. For Cano, the point is the flow of arms from the legal circuit to the illegal one. “99% of firearms are legally produced, and one third of the arms seized in illegal use came from the legal market”, says researcher Josephine Bourgois.

Add to this the fact that over 70% of the arms seized in 2002 were produced in Brazil. “We are today the only important Latin American producer of small arms”, claims Dreyfus. Accordingly, the arms are produced by known manufacturers, and the thesis that criminals use imported weapons is not valid. “Just in Rio de Janeiro, between 1951 and 2003, of every three arms seized in illegal hands, one had been purchased by people with a ‘clean sheet'”, Josephine observes. “In this state, every five hours a legal weapon is stolen, and, in 27% of the cases, in home invasions. In São Paulo, of the 77 thousand weapons seized in 1998, 71,400 were stolen and 5,500 lost”, she tells. “A society that arms itself to defend itself can be arming its aggressors”, Cano warns.

Or, in the irony of Millôr, we have reached the point where “weapons are being seized from the military which are for the exclusive use of the traffickers”. Each soldier or uniformed policeman has a right to buy freely six firearms every two years, directly from the manufacturer. “Hence the importance of the Statute on Disarmament, which, going beyond the question of the referendum, regulates this, since, up until then, the registers of the arms of the Armed Forces and of the police forces had their control restricted to the Army. Now this data will be shared with the Federal Police, which is going to be able, when seizing a firearm of the State, stolen or sold illegally, to discover the culprit”, says Dreyfus. The researcher says that impunity is so great that arms of the State found with bandits sometimes have the serial number and official stamps. “Adulterated weapons will undergo an expert inspection by the Federal Police, which can detect, even with the registration numbers scratched out, the serial number. The control of these weapons at the Ministry of Justice is going to diminish the problem.” The same control will be done with ammunition, which will have their batches numbered. “There lies the value of the application of the repressive part of the statute, which, at last, provides for heavy penalties for trafficking and illegal sales”, he says. The volume of the arms of the State caught with criminals may be small in quantity (in Rio, of the 50 thousand weapons, 60 were from the Army and 900 from the police), but they are the ones that have a high destructive power. And it is not all just corruption. Many policemen are killed just for their weapons. Furthermore, claims Dreyfus, the so-called excess stocks of the State (old weapons etc.) have to be controlled, as they are the ones that end up in the hands of the criminals. Not only does the referendum have to be discussed, but the statute has to be known, because it has more mechanisms against crime than our vain philosophy dreams of.

And it will not be for the first time that Brazil will make legislation for controlling small arms, although the Brazilian domestic arms industry is a recent phenomenon, born in the 1930’s to replace imports. In the South and the Southeast, the first private producers of arms were immigrants, like Boito, Rossi and the National Cartridge Factory (CBC today) and, in 1937, the Taurus forge, currently one of the largest producers in the world of short-barrel weapons. The first law, signed by Getulio Vargas, dates from 1934 and merely controlled the production of arms and ammunition for war, leaving total freedom for arms for civilian use. It was in the wake of the National Security Doctrine that the domestic armament industry grew, since the defense industry was seen by the post-1964 military as a catalyst for economic and technological development, as well as a way of establishing national might. The new rulers soon published a decree (1965) which gave primacy to the Army in supervising weapons. “The military dictatorship concentrated the circulation of weapons on the Army and openly encouraged the national armament industry”, notes Carolina Dias, of Viva Rio/Iser. It was enough to be a “suitable citizen” to be able to have an arsenal. There was no concern about controlling weapons and their owners, but about guaranteeing the expansion of the industry.

Global player
With the end of the dictatorship, the partnership between the State and the private arms industry broke up, including the subsidies previously granted to these companies. Even so, in 1990, Brazil was established as a medium-sized global player in the international small arms market. But the legislation moved slowly: in 1980, the first nationwide rule for arms registration was promulgated. There was, however, no effective control, which only happened in 1997 with Law 9437, which established a control and registry of weapons produced and imported with the Ministry of Justice, and also created the National Arms System (Sinarm), a sector of the Federal Police that was to gather information on civilian arms. The next step came in 2003, with the Statute on Disarmament. “With this, Brazil is the country with the most advanced legislation for controlling firearms and ammunition”, Carolina Dias claims.

If Hamlet talked of “words, words, words”, the question of disarmament is driven by “numbers, numbers, numbers”. There are surveys for all tastes: what are the chances of being attacked when carrying a weapon; what are the chances of death when somebody is attacked and defends himself with a weapon; are murderers acquaintances or not; do many weapons generate more crimes or not; are suicides and accidents directly linked to the number of weapons or not. What statistics should one trust? A survey carried out at Yale University reveals that the position of accepting or not the control over arms depends very little on drowning oneself in these figures, and still less whether the citizen is a man, woman, black or white, liberal or conservative. “The position of individuals on the theme is derived basically from their cultural vision. People are going to accept or reject empirical evidence depending on whether they confirm or enter into conflict with their cultural values”, avers Dan Kahan, the author of the study and a professor at Yale Law School.

At the base of the survey lies the cultural theory of risk, that is to say, how much risk we accept, according to our values. Society could then be divided into three profiles: egalitarians (in favor of collective actions that equalize wealth, status and power), individualists (who privilege individual autonomy and reject collective interference), and the hierarchical (for whom the State knows what it is doing and who have a deference for the traditional forms of authority). If the first kind supports arms control (for their aversion to the individual archetype of the “macho” racist who uses arms and for the vision of these as a celebration of individual self-sufficiency to the detriment of social solidarity, the other two are against. Individualists and the hierarchical see control, that is, society disarming the citizen for his own protection, as a gesture of individual impotence. Or, as actor Clint Eastwood used to say: “I have strong feelings about gun control. If there’s a gun around, I want to be controlling it.”

Symptomatically, in the survey, 79% of the people who favored arms control agreed with the statement: “Even if the unrestricted possession of arms were to reduce criminality, I do not want to live in a society where people arm themselves”. And 87% of those who reject control claimed that it would be wrong to banish arms, even if prohibiting them were to reduce criminality. “Therefore, facts about arms are not going to generate a consensus about how and whether to regulate the possession of arms by civilians. The vision that each one has about what is a good society is going to modify explicitly their evaluation of the risks implicit in the debate about arms”, says Kahan. Hence, according to the study, everything depends on the personal vision that one has about the risks of having arms or not. Debate is still the best weapon. “Instead of listening to radicals from one or other side, or of being swallowed up by the statistics, which in themselves have great value, the best question to be put is ‘what kind of society do I prefer to live in'”, the researcher advises.