The solution to Brazil’s high murder rate seemed obvious to the Brazilian government, the media, and United Nations: Ban guns. They all went to great efforts to pass an initiative doing just that last month, but in the end almost two thirds of Brazil’s voters rejected the proposal.
It is hard for most Americans to imagine what Brazilians are facing. For the most recent detailed numbers, the U.S. murder rate was 5.5 per 100,000 people in 2004. For Brazil it was 28.3 in 2002. That’s just a little less than three times the record U.S. murder rate at the height of prohibition in 1933.
Brazilians have a right to be skeptical that yet more gun control is the solution. Strict licensing laws that have been in effect in Brazil since 1940 have not solved the problem. Since 1941 it has been illegal to bring a weapon outside one’s house without authorization. Eighteen gun-control laws and regulations were imposed during the period from 1992 to 2003. Many rules were extremely restrictive: For example, a 1997 law required anyone applying for a firearm license to have a psychological test and knowledge of operation of firearms, and a 1999 law limited each person to two handguns. Despite new restrictions on gun ownership being continually imposed, murder rates rose every year from 1992 to 2002, a total 41 percent increase.
Indeed, given the huge differences in murder rates between the U.S. and Brazil, it is not too surprising that gun ownership in Brazil is just a fraction o that in the U.S.. Almost half of American adults live in households with guns, while just 3.5 percent of Brazilians are legally licensed to use guns.
A gun ban might not matter if police were able to protect people, but in poorer areas of Brazil’s major cities, police response times to even the most serious crimes are over an hour. Even in the wealthiest areas of cities, the fastest response times are not shorter than 15 minutes. Simply telling poor people to wait an hour for the police to show up is not very good advice.
Everyone wants to take guns away from criminals. The problem is that the law-abiding citizens, those who have followed the licensing and registration rules, are disarmed, not the criminals. This leaves potential victims more vulnerable and increases crime. As one cab driver who voted against the ban said, “I don’t like people walking around armed on the street. But since all the bandits have guns, you need to have a gun at home.”
Consider the case of Washington, D.C. In the five years before Washington’s ban in 1976, the murder rate fell from 37 to 27 per 100,000. In the five years after the ban went into effect, the murder rate rose back up to 35. In fact, while murder rates have fluctuated after 1976, only once have they fallen below what they were that year. Robberies and overall violent-crime rates followed the same trend: Robberies fell from 1,514 to 1,003 per 100,000 leasing up to 1976, and then rose by over 63 percent, up to 1,635. These drops and subsequent increases were much larger than any changes in neighboring Maryland and Virginia. For example, the District’s murder rate fell 3.5 to 3 times further than in the neighboring states and rose back 3.8 times greater.
Chicago, which has banned handguns since 1982, also saw violence rise. Chicago’s murder rate fell from 27 to 22 per 100,000 in the five years before the law, and then rose slightly to 23. The change is even more dramatic when compared to five neighboring Illinois counties. While robbery data in Chicago isn’t available for the years immediately after the ban, since 1985 (the first year for which the FBI has data) robbery rates soared.
The experience in the U.K., an island nation whose borders are much easier to monitor, should also give gun controllers pause. The British government banned handguns in 1997 but recently reported that gun crime in England and Wales nearly doubled in the four years from 1998-99 to 2002-03.
Crime was not supposed to rise after handguns were banned. Yet, since 1996 the serious-violent-crime rate has soared by 69 percent; robbery is up by 45 percent, and murders up by 54 percent. Before the law, armed robberies had fallen by 50 percent from 1993 to 1997, but as soon as handguns were banned the robbery rate shot back up, almost to 1993 levels.
Yet, hopefully Brazilians are not the only ones who have learned these lessons. San Francisco has an initiative on its November ballot to ban handgun ownership, and to ban the sale of all guns within the city. It would be a welcome sight to see both these measures struck down.
Brazilians are desperate about their crime rates, but apparently not desperate enough to wait passively for police the next time they are confronted by a criminal. Brazilians have experienced firsthand how the very gun-control regulations that they already have may in fact be the problem.