Brazil Has Nearly 60,000 Murders, And It May Relax Gun Laws

Mar 28, 2016
Originally published on March 28, 2016 8:25 pm

At the dilapidated morgue in the northern Brazilian city of Natal, Director Marcos Brandao walks over the blood-smeared floor to where the corpses are kept.

He points out the labels attached to the bright metal doors, counting out loud. It has not been a particularly bad night, yet there are nine shooting victims in cold storage.

Most were shot with guns that were not legally owned, he says.

Almost 60,000 people were murdered in Brazil in 2014, most with guns. While some Latin American countries have higher per capita murder rates, in absolute numbers, Brazil is the deadliest place in the world outside Syria.

Brazilians are far more likely to be shot to death than Americans, a more populous country where there are about 8,000 to 9,000 gun homicides each year.

Still, a group of Brazilian congressmen wants to make guns easier to obtain, modeling their proposal on U.S. legislation.

Right now, Brazil actually has tough gun laws. If you want to own a gun legally these are the requirements:

-- a fixed address

-- proof of legitimate income

-- no criminal record

-- a mental health test

-- proof you know how to handle a gun and shoot it

-- evidence of why you need a gun. For example, a police report of an attack against you.

Even if a prospective gun owner supplies all this information, the police can arbitrarily deny a request for a gun permit.

But Congressman Edson Moreira wants to make it easier to get guns. He is part of what's known as the "bullets, beef and Bible" caucus in Brazil's Congress, a group that is religiously conservative, supports the farming industry and favors greater access to guns.

"Brazil doesn't have a gun problem. It has a problem of illegal guns in the hands of criminals, especially drug traffickers," he says.

His group is trying to relax the ability of the police to decide who gets a weapon. "The idea is to return to the public the right to own a gun or not," he says.

His argument is one familiar to Americans: If the "bad guys" have guns, the "good guys" should be allowed to have them as well to protect themselves.

Indeed, Moreira says he is inspired by America's gun laws.

"The U.S.A. has the perfect legislation in the Second Amendment, which guarantees the population the right to bear arms," he says.

The U.S. National Rifle Association has been involved in past gun control debates here and it's clear many of the arguments used in Brazil are similar to those used by the American gun lobby.

Fabrício Rebelo, with the Research Center on Law and Security, which wants to ease gun laws, denies that Brazil is modeling itself on the U.S.

"The proposed change in the law here would still mean Brazil would have very strict gun control laws unlike the more relaxed [gun] market in North America," he says.

Still, gun control advocates say the basic argument of gun rights groups here is flawed because the people who are arguing for greater access to guns don't account for most of the victims.

Fabio Ataide, a judge in Natal who teaches criminology, says guns overwhelmingly kill young black men in Brazil.

"We are seeing a massacre of our young population. We don't call it that because it doesn't happen as it does in a war where you see all the bodies piled up at once," Ataide says.

"It's a massacre by drops. One day one young person, tomorrow another. It's almost the mass extermination of a population," he adds. "White Brazil is seeing fewer homicides. Violence is going down there. But black Brazil is seeing an explosion of violence."

Ivan Marques, the director of Sou da Paz Institute, which focuses on disarming the population, agrees.

"We are not talking about violence that is committed in the rich neighborhoods in the rich part of town," Marques says. "We are talking about crime that is organized crime, almost always related to drug trafficking."

He says more guns will simply mean more black deaths. But instead of trying to address that problem, legislators are intent on further arming the population.

He says the solution is better policing and better governance in poor communities.

What both sides agree on is that something needs to be done. A new study shows that 10 percent of all the murders worldwide now happen in Brazil.

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

In Brazil, almost 60,000 people were murdered in 2014. In absolute numbers, that makes Brazil the deadliest place in the world outside of Syria. Most of those victims were killed with guns. And now some Brazilian lawmakers are proposing a solution inspired by the United States' gun laws. NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro starts her report in the northern Brazilian city of Natal.

MARCOS BRANDAO: (Speaking Portuguese).

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, BYLINE: At Natal's dilapidated morgue, director Marcos Brandao walks over the blood-smeared floor to where the corpses are kept. He points out the labels attached to bright metal doors.

I'm looking at the refrigerators where they have the names and how the people died - and arma de fogo - gunfire, gunfire, gunfire, gunfire, gunfire. The majority of the people who ended up here were killed by guns.

BRANDAO: (Speaking Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The morgue director counts out loud. It's not been a particularly bad night, yet there are nine shooting victims here in cold storage.

BRANDAO: (Speaking Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: "Most are shot with illegally sourced revolvers," he tells me. So this is the thing. Brazil actually has tough gun laws. If you want one, you have to have a fixed address, prove you have a legitimate income and have no criminal record. You also need to take a mental health test plus show you know how to handle a gun and shoot it. And you have to show evidence of why you need a gun - for example, if there's a police report of an attack against you.

Even after all of that, the police can arbitrarily deny your request, as they are the ones that get to decide whether or not to issue you with a permit.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEEP)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We reached Congressmen Edson Moreira by phone. He's part of what is known as the Bullets, Beef and Bible caucus in Brazil's Congress. Moreira tells me Brazil doesn't have a gun problem. It has a problem of illegal guns in the hands of criminals, especially drug traffickers. The illegal gun market is huge in Brazil, but it's an arduous process, he says, to legally buy a firearm. That's why his group has introduced legislation to relax the ability of the police to decide who gets a weapon.

EDSON MOREIRA: (Speaking Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: "The idea," he says, "is to return to the public the right to own a gun or not." Basically, his argument is one familiar to Americans. If the bad guys have guns, the good guys should be allowed to have them as well to protect themselves. And indeed, Moreira tells me, he is inspired by America's gun laws.

MOREIRA: (Speaking Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The USA, he says, has the perfect legislation in the Second Amendment which, he says, guarantees the population the right to bear arms. Now, the National Rifle Association has been involved in past gun control debates here, and it's clear many of the arguments used in Brazil are similar to those used by the American gun lobby.

Fabricio Rebelo is with the Research Center on Law and Security which wants to ease gun laws. He denies, though, that Brazil is modeling itself on the U.S.

FABRICIO REBELO: (Speaking Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He says the proposed legislation in the law would still mean Brazil would have very strict gun control laws unlike a more relaxed market like the one in North America.

Gun control advocated say the basic argument, though, of gun rights groups here is flawed because the people who are arguing for greater access to guns don't account for most of the victims. Dr. Fabio Ataide is a judge in Natal, and he teaches criminology. He says guns overwhelmingly kill young black men in Brazil.

FABIO ATAIDE: (Speaking Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: "We're seeing a massacre of our young population," he says. "It's a massacre by drops - one day, one young person, tomorrow, another. It's almost the mass extermination of a population. White Brazil, though, is seeing fewer homicides. Violence is going down there, but black Brazil is seeing an explosion of violence," he says.

IVAN MARQUES: We're not talking about violence that is committed in neighborhood - the rich neighborhoods or the rich parts of town.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Ivan Marques, the director of Sou da Paz Institute, which focuses on disarming the population. He says more guns will simply mean more black deaths. But instead of trying to address that problem, he says legislators are intent on further arming the population.

MARQUES: We're talking about crime committed by organized crime almost always related to drug trafficking.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He says the solution to that is better policing and better governance in poor communities. What both sides agree on is that something urgently needs to be done. A new study shows that 10 percent of all murders worldwide now happen in Brazil. Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Natal. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.