SÃO PAULO — Firearms are responsible for 116 deaths every day in Brazil, according to a new study — a rate of nearly five people every hour.
The Map of Violence 2015, which UNESCO published this week in partnership with the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences and the Brazilian government, calculated that gun violence ended a staggering 42,416 lives in 2012 alone, the most recent year with comprehensive data.
The national mortality rate of 21.9 gun-related fatalities per 100,000 inhabitants — of which nearly 95 percent are homicides, while the balance includes suicides, accidents, and unexplained cases — is the second highest ever recorded in the annual study’s 35-year history.
Nearly 60 percent of the victims were young people aged between 15 and 29 years of age. Black individuals were found to be 142 percent more likely to be shot and killed than those who are white.
The northeastern state of Alagoas — home to Maceió, Brazil’s murder capital — topped the ranking, with 55 firearm-related deaths per 100,000 people.
Despite the large death toll, the study claims that the introduction in 2003 of the country’s controversial Disarmament Statute, which restricted gun ownership to those over 25 years of age and introduced security checks and a national firearms register, saved 160,000 lives between 2004 and 2012.
Some Brazilians believe that the statute might actually have helped increase the likelihood of deaths from gun violence. One firearms trader in São Paulo, who spoke to VICE News on the condition of anonymity, said that the statute made owning a gun legally virtually impossible for regular Brazilians.
“The statute improved nothing, and now crime and deaths are up,” he said. “The authorities focused on regulating legal purchases to an absurd extent. It can take up to a year to get a license here.” He argued that the obstacles to ownership pushed people into buying illegal weapons.
The country’s civilians are estimated to own upwards of 18 million guns, with more than half of them believed to be illicit.
A movement to relax the country’s gun ownership restrictions is afoot: a special commission in Brazil’s lower house of the National Congress is taking aim at the statute, pledging to ease access to arms and limits on where they can be carried. Legal firearms are currently confined to a registered residence or workplace.
“There is a mountain of bureaucracy and many costs involved today,” Federal Deputy Marcos Montes, the commission president, recently told the R7 news portal. “The poor in society cannot afford guns because they are expensive. The statute needs to be adjusted.”
Montes, who has received donations from armament companies as well as the National Association of Arms and Ammunition, is among those Brazilians who subscribe to the “more guns means less crime” school of thought.
But José Vicente da Silva Filho, a former colonel in the military police who served as Brazil’s national secretary of public security, vehemently disputes the deputy’s claims, and instead calls for the existing gun laws to be complemented by other reforms.
“The statute, which was a preliminary step, only had a limited effect, but giving people access to more guns is not the answer,” he told VICE News. “It’s thought that 15 percent of Brazilians have a weapon, compared to around 90 percent in the United States, but the difference is that [in Brazil] every additional percentage point of gun ownership pushes homicides up two percent.”
Silva argues that Brazil’s gun problem is not centered on the quantity of guns, but on the impunity of their use.
“Brazilians on average kill six times as many people as Americans do,” he said.
The Map of Violence report concluded that Brazilian society generally condones the use of violence to resolve interpersonal disputes, such as road rage incidents or personal arguments. It also blamed inadequate police investigations and a sluggish justice system, in which many cases are thrown out, for fostering an atmosphere of violence.
Silva supports the passage of reforms to the criminal code to secure a greater number of convictions with longer sentences. He fears that proposed changes to the statute allowing greater legal access to firearms would produce a significant uptick in violent crime.
Public safety advocates in Brazil have called for greater vigilance on the part of the country’s police forces, with particular focus on ensuring that guns seized by authorities do not go back into circulation.
In a setting where the striking rate of gun violence begets an impulse among many in the public to arm themselves for protection, exacerbating the cycle, the situation can only improve once Brazilians across the country start to feel safer. Until then, firearms will popularly be viewed as the only means of defense in one of the most violent countries on the planet.