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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Brazil Divided Over Gun Control Law

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil -- Brazilians have a startling propensity for shooting each other.

With about 180 million people living in Brazil, nearly 40,000 were killed by firearms in 2003. That is almost four times the number in the United States, whose population is larger by more than 100 million people. Brazil's cities are growing more violent and dangerous, crime is rising and gangs now often have more firepower than the police.

But a government plan for a complete nationwide ban on guns has generated an impassioned civic debate of a kind rarely seen here.

On Sunday, Latin America's biggest country will vote in a referendum that asks a single direct question: "Should the commerce of arms and ammunition be prohibited in Brazil?" While other countries have banned guns, supporters of both the "yes" and "no" positions in Brazil say this is the first time anywhere in the world that the electorate is being called on to decide the issue.

The vote, in which participation is obligatory -- shirkers will be fined -- is meant to ratify a highly restrictive gun control law that went into effect at the end of 2003, which has made it extremely difficult for ordinary citizens to legally buy, sell or own guns and ammunition. That legislation's phased application called for this referendum to decide on an all-but-total limit.

Proponents of the ban, bolstered by a letter of support from several Nobel Peace Prize winners, say this is Brazil's chance to vote for a safer society. "This is not Switzerland, or England, or even the United States. This is the country that kills with firearms more than any in the world," said Rubem Cesar Fernandes, the director of Viva Rio, a civic organization that has championed the ban. "We're experiencing an epidemic, a plague, and radical steps are required to control the spread and irresponsible use of firearms."

Opponents of the ban, including groups that describe themselves as allies of the National Rifle Association, say it would only embolden criminals. "Once bandits know with certainty that law-abiding citizens no longer have guns in their homes, that they can go in without fear, then God help the Brazilian family," said Alberto Fraga, a member of Congress who is president of the Parliamentary Front for the Right to Legitimate Defense.

Nearly 80 percent of the weapons manufactured in Brazil, which has the second-largest arms industry in the Western Hemisphere, are exported, mostly to neighboring countries like Paraguay and Colombia. Many are then smuggled back into the country. Other guns used to commit crimes come from police and military arsenals, either stolen or sold by corrupt soldiers and officers.

While support for the ban once seemed strong, both sides now agree that the race is tight, and the outcome is uncertain.

"We're still ahead, but our curve is dropping and they are gaining," said Fernandes of Viva Rio. "They've been stronger than I thought they would be, and their strategy is much more efficient than ours."