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Interview with John Lott on Brazilís gun referendum

Interviewer: Eben Kaplan
Interviewee: John Lott
October 21, 2005

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Brazilians go to the polls October 23 to vote in a referendum to ban the sale of guns and ammunition. The referendum—the first of its kind in the world—is aimed at curbing Brazil’s soaring murder and violent crime rates. John Lott, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and author of the book More Guns, Less Crime, suggests a ban would do little to stem gun violence in Brazil. He points to inadequate law enforcement as a greater problem. “If the police aren’t able to go and protect people,” he says, “you might want to consider loosening the laws and making it easier for people to have guns to protect themselves.” Lott spoke with cfr.org’s Eben Kaplan on October 21, 2005.

What is the impetus behind Brazil’s gun referendum?

Well, Brazil’s been having, for the last couple decades, increasing murder rates and violent crime. It has some of the highest murder rates in the world, and I’m sure there’s a lot of frustration—people want to try to find something to do about it. The government’s been passing numerous gun-control laws over time: Between 1992 and 2002, it passed a total of eighteen gun-control regulations and laws. I think this is just a continuation of the trend.

You’ve written that increased gun ownership can lower crime rates. With that in mind, how effective do you think a ban on guns inBrazilwould be?

Prior to 2004, you only had about 3.5 percent of Brazilians legally owning guns because they had a registration-licensing system down there. They’ve had that since 1940. The type of people who are able to get guns now tend to be a relatively small and wealthy portion of the population—just to be able to pay the fees and go through the process. So you virtually banned gun ownership anyway—legal gun ownership inBrazil—so you’re going to go from banning it for 96.5 percent [of the population] to around 99 percent. I don’t imagine you’re going to see huge impacts on things like the crime rate.

What measures could Brazil pursue to more effectively reduce crime rates?

You look at things like the police-response times. For some of the wealthiest areas—urban areas in Brazil—you’re talking about a minimum of a fifteen-minute response time for police. For poor areas in most cities, you’re talking about an hour-plus response time for even the most serious crimes. Arrests and conviction rates are very low in Brazil. I think that has a lot to do with the crime problems there. [With] police response times over an hour for those poor areas, the solution isn’t trying to make sure that anybody in those areas who might still legally have a gun [will] get rid of it. If the police aren’t able to go and protect people, you might want to consider loosening the laws and making it easier for people to have guns to protect themselves.

I think allowing those individuals to have guns legally does two things: One, it can deter criminals from attacking to begin with, and the second thing is it’s the safest course of action for people to take when they are confronted by a criminal. There’s research in Brazil that’s pointed to by gun-control advocates, but it’s pretty poorly done. The main thing they are trying to push is the notion that having a gun is more likely to result in a bad situation rather than a beneficial situation. But the data they use only involves crimes where you have a death occurring, and a large portion of gun use is to stop the crime before a bad outcome happens. People who use guns defensively rarely have to fire them. The numbers that are used by the anti-gun-control side there are only looking at part of the problem and missing out on the fact that when you brandish a gun and don’t fire it—which is in the vast majority of cases—the benefits from those actions stopping crimes are not included.

Two months ago, polls showed 80 percent of Brazil’s population supporting a ban, now it looks as if it will be a very close vote. Why was there such a shift?

I think the vote’s caused people to think a little bit more about the costs and benefits of these types of laws. The normal media discussion on these crimes involves just the bad things that happen with guns. This is true in Brazil; it’s true in theUnited States. I’ve gone through and looked at news coverage of guns on the television networks and newspapers, and in 2001, for example, if you look at all the television news broadcasts by ABC, CBS, and NBC, you’ll see that they had about 190,000-words worth of gun-crime stories that they broadcast during the year. By contrast, they did not have one single story, not one mention of someone using a gun defensively to protect themselves or protect somebody else.

I think a lot of that can be explained by what’s newsworthy and what’s not. But it still gives people an impression about the costs and benefits of guns when they only hear about the cost and never hear about stories regarding the benefits. I think it has a big impact on people’s perception. [In Brazil,] the debate’s been joined more and people have at least begun to mention some of the other issues, and I think it’s had some impact on the polls. As you said, there’s been a fairly massive sea change. To be honest, though, I’m surprised that it’s competitive, given how incredibly small a percentage of the population is able to legally own guns. In order to get tight in the polls, a huge percentage of the population that isn’t even legally allowed to own guns [must not] want to take guns away from the tiny percent that still is able to have them.

Is there a high level of illegal gun ownership in Brazil?

Yes, I think that gets to part of the crux of the problem: Since 1941, even people who are legally registered and licensed to own guns are not allowed to take the gun outside of their residence unless they’re given specific approval by the government to do this. Obviously, a large percentage of gun crimes are taking place outside the residence of the person that owns the gun. They have a big drug-gang problem in Brazil, and one of the problems that’s become clear is when they go and ban guns, drug gangs—just like they’re able to go and bring drugs into the country illegally—are able to bring the weapons they need in order to protect their drug trafficking. They have something very valuable there, drugs that they’re transporting and selling, and there’s a lot at stake for them. [Brazilians] want to protect that, not only from the police, but they want to protect themselves from other gangs.

How have international gun-ownership groups like the National Rifle Association responded to this referendum?

I assume people at the NRA have had some conversation with their counterparts inBrazil , but I haven’t seen any direct involvement. I haven’t heard of anything like the NRA taking out ads down there. My guess is, on both sides of the issue, people from the United States are talking to people inBrazil. You see a lot of the types of arguments being put forward by both sides—both the gun-control side as well as people who want to emphasize self defense—mirroring a lot of the debate in the United States. Some of the studies by gun-control groups there look extremely similar, down to their flaws and everything else, to studies done by the Brady Campaign or other similar [gun-control] groups in the United States. I assume that’s not by accident.