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RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil – For researchers Daniel Cerqueira and Júlio Jacobo Waiselfisz, the reason the country’s murder rate has decreased in recent years is simple: Fewer guns equal fewer deaths.
Cerqueira’s recent study on behalf of the Institute for Applied Economic Research (Ipea) shows that between 2001 and 2007, the number of armed robberies that ended with a fatality and the overall murder rate fell by 61% in the state of São Paulo.
Waiselfisz, of the nongovernmental organization (NGO) Sangari Institute, released his Map of the Violence, which shows the number of homicides nationwide has decreased since 2004, a level of improvement South America’s biggest country hadn’t experienced in decades.
Cerqueira and Waiselfisz attribute the decrease in homicides to the Statute of Disarmament, a 2003 federal law that restricted citizens’ access to firearms and increased the purchase price and registration of weapons. It also promoted a campaign for gun owners to give up their weapons to authorities, with compensation payments varying from R$100 to R$400 (US$56 to US$224).
Since 2003, laws against carrying firearms became more rigid, since the crime is no longer subject to bail.
Cerqueira says that for every 18 firearms apprehended by the São Paulo police a life was saved, meaning 13,000 lives were saved from 2001 to 2007.
“More firearms generate more crime,” Cerqueria says. “An armed population can’t dissuade criminals.”
Cerqueira said the decrease in the number of guns on the streets has increased the number of complaints of bodily injury, since without guns people often resort to using their fists and feet as weapons.
In his Map of the Violence, Waiselfisz ranks São Paulo as the nation’s fifth-most violent state, with 36.1 homicides per 100,000 residents in 1997. Ten years later, the state fell to No. 25, with 15 homicides per 100,000 residents.
From 1997 to 2007, the state’s homicide rate fell 50.3%, from 12,552 to 6,234.
The study also shows that the national homicide rate grew 5.5% annually, reaching 51,043 deaths in 2003. But a year after the Statute of Disarmament was ratified, the murder rate fell to 5.2% in 2004, when 48,374 casualties were documented.
The number of homicides continued falling throughout the country, as 47,707 were reported in 2007.
But the drop was not the same in all parts of Brazil. “As the phenomenon affected [mainly] the three largest states of Brazil – São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Minas Gerais, which have 50% of the population – the impact is felt at the national level,” says Waiselfisz.
Waiselfisz said the country shouldn’t have stopped disarmament campaigns in 2005, when gun owners were urged to surrender their weapons to authorities. That year, Brazilians voted to continue the selling of firearms and ammunition nationwide.
Since then the drop in homicides in some states cannot be explained with the Statute of the Disarmament alone, but in states’ policies to fight violence, Waiselfisz says.
Luiz Paulo Barreto, the country’s minister of justice, said the government is making a concerted effort to keep the streets safe.
“July will be the month of disarmament, having a National Day of Disarmament,” Barreto says. “We will promote new campaigns for gun owners to turn in firearms.”
Barreto says two types of Brazilians carry a firearm: cops and criminals.
“It’s almost zero the number of people who ask for authorization to carry a firearm who are not in the public security forces,” Barreto says.
Still, Brazil’s homicide rate is daunting. The 47,707 homicides that happened nationwide in 2007 mean an average of 131 murders daily, according to the Map of the Violence.
Antônio, who prefers not to reveal his real name, was 21 when a private bodyguard in front of the samba school Caprichosos de Pilares, in Rio de Janeiro, approached him and some friends, in 1990.
“He was visibly on drugs,” Antônio says. “He came toward us and threatened one of my friends with a gun [pointed at] his head. The other bodyguards couldn’t hold him and we ran. He shot twice in our direction and one of the bullets hit me in the thigh.”
Antônio had several surgeries and couldn’t work for months.
“The doctors said that I was lucky I wasn’t paralyzed,” says Antônio, who preferred not to go on with a lawsuit fearing reprisal.
The nongovernmental organizationViva Rio, in an attempt to determine how many guns used in crimes are being purchased on the black market, analyzed a sample of firearms seized in Rio de Janeiro for the Committee on Public Information (CPI) of the Traffic of Firearms in November 2006.
The NGO’s conclusion? Sixty-eight percent were sold on the domestic, legal market, says Júlio Cesar Purcena, a researcher of the Firearms Control Project at Viva Rio.
“They passed from the stores to the citizens,” he said, “and ended up falling in the hands of criminals.”