TCS Daily

Brazil (Gun) Nuts?

By Alvaro Vargas Llosa - October 28, 2005 12:00 AM

A very unusual referendum took place in Brazil last weekend. 120 million voters were summoned to the polls to decide whether to ban the sale of firearms. Unlike the U.S., where this issue is part of the national debate, most underdeveloped countries frown at the thought of people discussing gun possession laws when there are such pressing matters as eliminating poverty. From the vantage point of poor countries, arguing about guns seems an exotic pastime for nations that have few worries. This is certainly not due to the absence of guns in poor countries -- they abound there too. It just doesn't cross many people's minds that this issue can be the stuff of national politics.

Or so we thought. Brazil's referendum, in which the ban on guns proposed by the government was rejected by close to 65 percent of the population, would seem to indicate otherwise. No doubt the government, involved in a wide corruption scandal in the last few months, was punished at the polls by voters disillusioned with President Lula da Silva, the champion of the poor. But it would be naïve to think that what took place in Brazil was basically a punitive vote against Lula. It would also be naïve -- much as I am tempted to say Brazilians went to the polls determined to protect individual rights -- to maintain that last Sunday's vote was a Jeffersonian statement against state interference with people's private domain.

So, what is the result of the referendum all about? I would argue it was a resounding condemnation of the failure of the Brazilian state to make true on the primary claim of any government -- i.e. that it will protect the people. The vote was essentially an indictment of the Brazilian authorities -- at all levels -- as the guarantors of social order. Brazilians massively supported the argument put forward by the spokespersons for the "no" side that banning guns would deprive the population of protection against bandits because the police, that quintessential government institution, is simply not to be trusted. For too long the Brazilian government has done all sorts of things it should have left to private initiative -- to the detriment of its basic functions. What has the result been? Brazilians' everyday-life experience of their government spells meddlesome bureaucracy, abusive corruption, and the crowding out of opportunity -- and no effective protection against predation.

It is easy to see why voters would distrust the argument that the responsibility for those 40,000 deaths by firearm that take place in Brazil every year lies with the absence of a ban. More than 60 percent of the guns employed in fatal shootings are obtained in the black market any way. A law has drastically restricted the sale of arms since 2003 and yet there are still some 17 million guns in the country. The only guns that have been taken out of the market are those the government has been able to buy back from citizens willing to make some money -- less than 2 percent of the total number. With these antecedents in mind, people figured the ban would benefit bandits much more than their victims.

Poor, uneducated people may not have the sophistication to argue about individual rights the way many people in America argue every time the Second Amendment comes up in a campaign. But they know they have scant faith in the police because in some cases that institution is itself involved with crimes committed against them and the rest of the time it has proved unable to provide basic security at the grassroots level. As the recent vote shows, at the grassroots level people seem to understand the inadequacies of unlimited government because, unlike powerful special interests linked to the state, they don't have the power to sway it to their side -- even to obtain protection against crime.

For decades, Brazilians have seen what the type of bureaucratic government they have means in practice. The same government that will promise from time to time to take land away from the rich to give to the poor through socialist-type reform has failed to grant state-owned land to those 5 million landless peasants (and their families) who have been in constant conflict with the authorities for years. The same government that wants to take away the right of citizens to defend themselves against bandits who seem to have no trouble getting guns despite the existing legal restrictions has failed to provide legal security for those land squatters that have been able to stake out a plot of land in the Amazon region. The same bureaucracy that purports to promote small and mid-size businesses charges them 5 times more taxes than in Communist China!

Given this context, is it any wonder people tend to have less than full trust in government and choose to express those reservations on occasions like the recent referendum?

Alvaro Vargas Llosa is the director of the Center on Global Prosperity at the Independent Institute. He is he author of Liberty for Latin America.


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