I was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator and am now a journalist. I am the author of three New York Times bestselling books -- "How Would a Patriot Act" (a critique of Bush executive power theories), "Tragic Legacy" (documenting the Bush legacy), and With Liberty and Justice for Some (critiquing America's two-tiered justice system and the collapse of the rule of law for its political and financial elites). My fifth book - No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State - will be released on April 29, 2014 by Holt/Metropolitan.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Brazilians refuse to give up the right to bear arms

Here in Brazil, the country yesterday held a nationwide, single-issue referendum. The question: whether the country should ban the commercial sale of firearms. The result: roughly 66% against the gun ban, with only 34% in favor of it.

The lopsided rejection of the gun ban is extraordinary. When the referendum was first introduced, polls consistently showed a huge majority -- as much as 80% -- in favor. It was widely expected the gun ban would pass easily. Brazilians, living in a country with the second-highest gun-murder rate in the world (after Venezuela), instinctively favored proposals to ban the sale of guns as a quick fix for reducing the nation's rampant violence.

But as citizens became more informed and thought more rationally about the issue, their opinions changed radically. Brazilian television stations gave each side free commercial time to argue its position, ensuring fair and informed debate. As Brazilians thought more about the gun ban, opposition steadily grew, culminating in the astounding and lopsided defeat for the gun ban referendum.

Brazilian cities are plagued with epidemic gun violence. Organized criminal gangs based in the favelas (slums) of Brazilian cities are often better-armed than the police. Ordinary street criminals are well-stocked with firearms. And the perception is widespread among the citizenry that the Government is inept at providing its citizens with basic security and protection.

From these premises, Brazilians perceptively concluded that the absolute worst option would be for its law-abiding citizens to disarm en masse, leaving them even more vulnerable and undefended against the nation's well-armed criminals -- who (being criminals) would, of course, defy the gun ban and continue to stockpile firearms.

Brazilians realized that the last thing they wanted to do was to bestow upon the nation's theives, muggers, kidnappers and murderers the peace of mind of knowing that they can invade whatever homes they want or assault whomever they want with impunity, free of the fear that their victims may be as well-armed as they are. Nor did Brazilians want to cede the right to protect themselves to a Government which so drastically fails to fulfill its duty of protecting them.

Equally persuasive was the argument that a disarmed citizenry is more vulnerable not only to criminals but to government tyranny as well. In a country with a (relatively recent) history of military dictatorships and state repression, the argument that firearms played a crucial role in some of the 20th Century's most glorified citizen-led fights for freedom -- in Tiananman Square in China, by Nelson Mandela in South Africa, and by various repressed populations in World War II -- resonated loudly. Brazilians concluded that they were in far greater danger giving up the right to bear arms than they were in keeping that right.

Regardless of one's views on gun control, the referendum was a potent illustration of democracy at its most virtuous. The public debate was vigorous, open and substantive. Voters listened to the arguments that were advanced on both sides, a majority actually changed its mind as a result of the debate, and they then made an informed and rational choice concerning one of the nation's most pressing issues.

As a result of the referendum -- both the result and the process leading up to it -- personal security and political liberty are substantially healthier in Brazil.

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