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Present arms!


With the colour of a carnival attraction, the destruction of the largest number of guns in a single day took place in Brazil on 24 June 2001. More than 100,000 rifles, pistols, revolvers and machine guns were laid out on metal plates stretching 100 metres down the pretty Parque do Flamengo, a square in the seaside city of Rio de Janeiro. Tens of thousands of spectators – some of them previous gun owners – waited behind barricades to watch an excavator drive up and down the plates, crushing the weapons beneath its metal tracks. It marked the first step towards the disarmament of the civilian population in Rio and, four years later, the whole of the country.

Separating a man from his gun is difficult in a Latin country like Brazil. It is even harder in a city like Rio de Janeiro, where small arms have often been seen as the best protection against the violence and crime that plagues it. Guns are the number-one cause of death for men in Rio, and Brazil recorded the second highest rate of deaths by firearms in a 54-country survey conducted by UNESCO released this May.

Nevertheless, the State of Rio de Janeiro is in the middle of a government-sponsored buy-back campaign that has astonished officials with its success. When it began last July, authorities estimated that 80,000 arms would be handed in by December at a price of $20 to $100 each. Instead 250,000 weapons were collected by the end of 2004, prompting the Government to extend the amnesty by another six months. Now the tally is up to 330,000, with more guns being destroyed by the military every day. On 21 May this year, gun collection centres opened nationally. And a ban on civilian sales of small arms will be decided by referendum later this year.

The campaign’s principal engineer is Viva Rio, an NGO established in 1993. As a result of the group’s lobbying, research and education programmes, the Government and public are realizing that a safer Rio is one with fewer guns, not more.

Brazil’s arms dealers exposed

When Viva Rio analyzed military and police gun records stretching back to 1950, the results were surprising, even to the police. While assault rifles like the AK-47 were making the headlines, more than 80 per cent of guns seized by police were pistols and revolvers. Three quarters of the handguns had been locally manufactured – half of those by the country’s largest gun-maker. The data ran counter to the popular belief – pushed strongly by the local arms industry – that the weapons most responsible for the violence in Rio were foreign-made, large-calibre rifles from the US, China, Russia and Israel. That line of argument meant that arms smuggled into the country could only be stopped by better state control of Brazil’s borders.

Not surprisingly, Brazil’s local arms industry has loudly opposed a ban on gun sales and is lobbying to delay the referendum until next year. There is also resistance from the rural upper class, particularly in the south, where large landowners have traditionally organized their own private security by distributing guns to farm workers.

An advertising campaign to strip guns of their sex appeal associated gun ownership with premature ejaculation and small penises

But the greatest obstacle has been psychological. Many Cariocas (as the inhabitants of Rio are known) bought guns to protect their families from gang- and drug-related warfare in the city’s favelas. To counter this rationale Viva Rio argues for better police training, more communication with the community and fewer weapons in the favelas as the only way to guarantee the rights of individuals. While middle-class residents buy guns for protection, in the favelas they are carried as symbols of prestige. Rio’s drug dealers display military-grade rifles like they do their money and women. Challenging this macho image means breaking the link between guns and status.

So Viva Rio ran an advertising campaign that enlisted the help of beautiful actresses from the wildly popular soap operas to strip guns of their sex appeal. The ads, which contained sexual puns associating gun ownership with premature ejaculation and small penises, ran with the slogan ‘Arma não. Ela ou eu’: ‘Say no to small arms. Choose your gun or me.’ Most gun owners are male, but it has been wives and girlfriends that have pushed them to turn in their weapons.

The tragic story behind each gun

The advertising campaign was an instant success, but Viva Rio quickly realized that it needed to be expanded. Soon after the amnesty began, a well-known entrepreneur visited a collection post three times in one week, turning in a total of 12 guns. But it was not enough. The following week the man shot his nine-year-old son and seven-year-old daughter before turning his 13th gun on himself.

‘When we saw that on the news we thought we have to call in the churches,’ said Viva Rio’s André Porto. ‘That man needed to talk. NGOs are secular places. We don’t have this kind of sensitivity.’

By May this year 53 churches in the State of Rio de Janeiro were collecting guns every Saturday, some on Sunday too. On the national day of disarmament on 21 May cathedrals and churches in 102 cities across Brazil collected 1,000 guns in a single day. In a religious country like Brazil, the act of disarmament takes on other dimensions. ‘We believe that when one person disarms it is a spiritual act as well – it is an affirmation of peace,’ says Porto. ‘Every gun has a story to tell and usually it is a tragedy,’ adds Porto’s colleague, Josephine Bourgois. ‘People ask to hammer it themselves, crying and remembering who it had killed.’

Churches, NGOs and the federal police disable weapons on the spot by smashing them with a four-kilogram hammer in three places – the barrel, magazine or chamber and trigger. Maiming the weapons is also a guarantee that they will not be used again. In the past, weapons that were surrendered were often re-sold to criminals by corrupt police officers. One slippery handgun in São Paulo was seized by police seven times.

The range of weapons handed in has been staggering. The largest to date has been a 30-mm machine gun that is capable of shooting down an aircraft. The bomb squad is called in to deal with the hand grenades and explosives.

But despite the thousands of weapons collected, small arms-related violence remains common. Last April in Baixada – the heavily populated lowlands north of Rio – drunken police acting as vigilantes entered a favela and randomly shot dead 29 people.

In addition, there are an estimated 8.7 million illegal firearms still in circulation. But Rubem César Fernandes, Executive Director of Viva Rio, believes that the disarmament of Brazil will take a leap forward if the referendum banning civilian sales wins a simple majority later this year: ‘It will be a very radical restriction of supply.’

And then there are the Cariocas themselves. Each time one decides that a gun doesn’t belong in the hands of a civilian, the country moves one step closer to a lasting peace.

Sholto Macpherson is an Australian-based freelance journalist presently reporting from South America.

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