How Brazil Exploited Sexual Insecurity to Curb Guns: An Interview with Antonio Bandeira

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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Brazil has a gun culture, a gun industry and a gun problem -- much like the U.S. In fact, more Brazilians than Americans died of gunfire in 2010.

Yet Brazil's 2010 tally, 34,300 deaths, was significantly lower than its gun fatalities in 2003 (39,284), when the government enacted major gun-control regulation. I asked Brazilian political scientist Antonio Bandeira, who coordinates the arms-control program of Viva Rio, a nongovernmental organization in Rio De Janeiro, how the campaign for gun regulation succeeded in Brazil.

(This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.)

Question: What was the political context and background before the gun control campaign?

Answer: Until 2003, like your Congress, our legislature was against any changes in our permissive gun laws, which were an inheritance from the former military regime. (Brazil is the world's fourth largest exporter of small arms and light weapons.) Many Brazilian politicians have their election campaigns financed by the gun lobby, and others retain the machismo mentality that associates guns with masculinity. So changing gun laws was not going to be easy.

Q: What strategy did you adopt?

A: We decided to work with civil society, to build pressure to apply to parliament. First, we had to prove in scientific terms that gun control was necessary to improve public security. Brazil had more deaths caused by firearms than any other nation. In Rio de Janeiro, my team of experts was able to access and evaluate data on 720,000 guns seized by the police.

Our analysis destroyed many myths. For example, most people believed that narcotrafficantes used mainly foreign guns. We proved that 90 percent of illegal guns were Brazilian-made. People believed criminals relied on high-caliber weapons. We proved that 88 percent of guns used in crimes were revolvers or pistols. We also demonstrated that guns are good for attacking, but not for self-defense. (The surprise factor is the attacker's advantage.)

In addition, we found that most gun deaths were committed with legal guns, by previously law-abiding citizens -- and not by organized criminals. The perpetrators of gun violence are husbands shooting wives, neighbors shooting neighbors, employees firing at bosses, children's accidents, suicides, etc. All put together, they largely surpass homicides perpetrated by organized crime.

Q: What did you do with that research?

A: We convinced the main Brazilian media to open space and time to show these figures and arguments, to promote public debate on them. Unlike the NRA, our gun lobby doesn't produce fake research, so there was a contrast between our arguments, based on scientific knowledge, and the industry myths.

Q: You were trying to create cultural change, as well as legal change. How did that work?

A: We mobilized organized elements of civil society committed to a culture of peace and human rights -- churches, women's groups, minority groups, etc. We promoted debates and organized huge marches in the most important states' capitals. We were able to convince the most influential TV channel to introduce a discussion of guns on a very popular soap opera, "Women in Love." The actors participated in Rio's March Against Guns, when 50,000 people marched at Copacabana beach.

Q: But you also tried to stigmatize guns, even identifying them as a symbol of masculine insecurity. A popular actress equated gun possession with "a little problem" -- insinuating that men are attracted to guns in order to compensate for sexual inadequacy.

A: The use of guns is basically a male problem. In our societies, men subscribe to the old model of "warrior men" and to rural customs characterized by the use of force to solve problems. Movies keep alive the old macho model of masculinity. This backward tradition is reinforced by men's feelings of impotence in a hypercompetitive society. If they also have sexual insecurities, guns can make them feel stronger, more potent; with a gun, they will not be "naked."

One of our most successful media campaigns ironically associated sexual insecurity with the glorification of guns. Pretty and popular actresses said, "Good lovers don't need a gun." We deconstructed machismo, using the slogan "Choose Gun Free! It's Your Weapon or Me!" Young people loved it.

We also found that most men who handed in their guns had been influenced by women (mother, grandmother, lover). So we launched another movement, under the slogan "Mothers, Disarm your Sons!" These were specific actions to attenuate the devastating influence of the culture of violence disseminated though movies, TV and video games produced in your country.

Q: And in the end, you won?

A: After all these public debates, marches and other means of raising public awareness, a national survey showed that 82 percent of the public favored new restrictions on guns. The gun lobby always uses money to influence Brazil's Congress; we didn't, but the voters were for us. So, Congress enacted our Disarmament Statute. According to the statute, the minimum age to buy a gun was raised to 25 years, carrying guns was prohibited, guns and the ammunition used by police were marked, so they could be traced, and 15 conditions were established, which a person buying a gun must meet: no criminal record, psychological and gun handling tests, etc. On Christmas 2003, President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva signed the new law. Research showed gun homicides declined 8 percent in the five years after the law was implemented in 2004, saving 5,000 lives.

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