Victoria Marie Page. 18.02.2016.
In 2014 an estimated 60,000 people were murdered in Brazil, one of the highest murder rates in the world. The majority of murders were by firearms and the majority of victims were young, male and identified as black. The solution proposed to congress has been to ease gun restrictions. The proposed Bill would see the age of gun ownership lowered from 25 to 21 years old and would give “citizens” a right to own guns to protect their property.
Having been robbed at gun point in Rio de Janeiro in 2013, I struggle to understand the logic behind arming more people. If I had had a gun, and tried to get it out to use it, whilst having one directed towards me, I doubt very much that I would be writing this now. When I told my Brazilian and foreign friends living in Brazil that I was robbed at gun point, their responses were of inevitability and disappointment, like that of peeling a banana to find it’s all bruised inside. Annoying. But you bite at what you can and then move on with the rest of your day without much thought. A feigned sympathy. An unfortunate truth. An initiation into Brazilian reality.
In 2003, Brazil took a positive move towards disarmament with a tightening of gun controls, from which an estimated 160,000 lives have been saved. Alongside this “pacification” the public security policy has been establishing a permanent police presence in a number of favelas (albeit limited to ones that intersect with tourist or wealthy areas), which is reducing gun crime within favelas and enabling the seizure of weapons.
This new proposal to ease gun laws is part of a recent worrying trend currently sweeping across Brazil towards conservatism. In August of this year, the House of Representatives approved a reduction of the penal age from 18 to 16 years of age. In October, the Chamber of Deputies approved a project to criminalize abortion for women following rape, as well as induced abortion through abortive substances. These moves have pertinent and concerning raced and gendered dimensions.
The majority of victims of gun violence in Brazil are not the wealthy and lighter skinned population who are pushing for more firearms, nor the foreign white female tourists like myself, but are young black men. Not only are they more likely to be victims of violence from criminal factions, they are also the most frequent victims of police brutality. On average, 6 people a day are killed by police forces in Brazil, 11,000 between 2009 and 2013. Most of them are young, black and aged 15-29 years.
Promoting citizen vigilantism is a brash move. Vigilantism is frequently applauded in Brazil with a “good bandit is a dead bandit” motto and a “shoot first, ask questions later” approach. But a question must be asked – whose lives are going to be lost with a reduction of gun controls? Who are those who will be seen as a “threat”? If current evidence is anything to go by, it will not be the white middle and upper classes, but those already placed on the offensive side of public security.
Gender matters here. Violence and aggression are all too often accepted as part and parcel of “being a man”, sexual conquest or physical violence included. But masculinities are diverse and take on different meanings on different bodies, and some are hyper-masculinised. Histories of slavery cast the black male body into a threatening position, with an over-emphasised physicality and a pathology towards violence. While these stereotypes were never true, and were propagated to legitimise slavery, they continue to influence public policing today, and there is no evidence that they wouldn’t continue through vigilantism. Militarised masculinities – like the skull and cross-bone logo of Rio’s elite police squad, BOPE – is a clear example of the institutionalisation of violence and its celebration towards masculine status.
The need to address models of masculinity is pertinent in Brazil, and arguably the world over. Too often they encourage violence and frame some bodies as more dangerous than others, as bearers of a ‘hyper-masculinity’ that must be controlled, even if that means arming the wider public. It is not only men who give salience to these models. We are all involved in the sustaining of such ideas through the media, socialisation, politics, our home lives and so on.
Violence in Brazil does not come out of thin air. With a not-so-distant history of slavery, one of the highest rates of economic inequality in the world, communities essentially abandoned by the state, legacies of harsh economic and social austerity policies, an international drug market, and social norms that condone and celebrate aggression, the turn to violence, while never inevitable, is not such a surprise. Rather than making up for the state’s failure to provide adequate security by arming the public – and let’s be clear, it is only a limited segment of the population whom this legislation is seeking to benefit – how about providing security to people left by the state to the rule of gangs? How about creating and some decent employment opportunities and quality education for young people of all races and classes?
Image from: Lunae Parracho, http://blogs.reuters.com/corinne-perkins/page/5/?st=post