Brazil and South Africa Are Addicted to Gun Violence

Brazil and South Africa have dramatically expanded their geopolitical influence over the past two decades. But after years of democratic and economic gains, the two countries now find themselves in the doldrums. One of the reasons for this is that they are addicted to violence. Brazil and South Africa lead their respective continents in murder. This is no easy feat: last year the United Nations reported that 8 of the top 10 most violent countries in the world were located in Latin Americas and Africa. Yet between them, Brazil and South Africa now share 16 of the 50 most dangerous cities on the planet.

The scale of killing in both countries is breathtaking. At least one in eight people dying violently around the world each year is either a Brazilian or South African. In 2013, an estimated 53,646 Brazilian citizens were murdered -- a rate of 25.2 per 100,000. Last year another 16,259 South Africans died as a result of homicide -- some 31.3 per 100,000. And while criminologists and public health experts dispute the "real" number of murders (police tend to underestimate violent crime), everyone concedes that these figures likely under-estimate the true scale of the problem.

High profile murders in Brazil and South Africa have put the issue of firearm-related violence back in the spotlight. Earlier this month in the northern Brazilian city of Belém, off-duty police officers went on a shooting spree and massacred 10 people. Meanwhile, in Johannesburg, the assassination of South Africa´s national football captain, Senzo Meyiwa, comes on the heels of Olympian Oscar Pistorius for gunning down his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp. These individual gun deaths add to the lethal epidemic that is afflicting both countries.

There is nothing inevitable about gun violence. And while the scandalously high rates of murder in both Brazil and South Africa are treated by many as "normal," there are encouraging signs of change. Targeted crime prevention measures and public health interventions pursued in both countries are cause for cautious optimism. For example, in December 2003, Brazil´s national congress passed a landmark Disarmament Statute. For law introduced unprecedented restrictions on purchasing firearms and prohibited civilians from carrying them.

The Brazilian Statute also prescribed a firearms amnesty in order to reduce the number of guns in circulation. A national campaign led by non-governmental organizations, churches, and an army of volunteers collected more than 450,000 weapons, one of the largest hauls in history. These weapons were publicly destroyed. In 2004, just one year after the Statute, firearm homicide declined by 8 per cent, and this after 13 years of steady increases. This translates into 3,234 lives saved in a single year. The Disarmament Statute remains in force, but is under threat by right-leaning Congressmen.

Meanwhile, an array of far-reaching violence prevention programs have also been rolled out in Brazilian states like Minas Gerais, Pernambuco, Rio de Janeiro, and Sao Paulo. In Rio, a community policing effort involving gun retrievals has reduced homicidal violence by 65% since it started in 2009. In Sao Paulo, hot spot policing and police reform efforts also contributed to reductions in murder by about 70% since 1999. These and other activities have attracted the attention of law enforcement officials everywhere, including from South Africa.

There are also signs of positive steps being taken to reduce gun violence in South Africa. For example, the country´s Firearms Control Act, or FCA, regulates firearms ownership. Since its signing into law in 2000, it has contributed to statistically significant reductions in gun violence. A recent peer-reviewed study demonstrates a 13.5 percent reduction of firearm homicide in five cities where it was applied since 2001. If the FCA has one limitation, it is that it does not go far enough.

The South African organization Gun Free South Africa (GFSA) and the South African Football Association are proposing additional gun law reform. They are calling for concrete action -- including amnesty schemes such as the one that netted over 32,000 weapons between January and April 2010. GFSA and the Association have asked the South African Parliament and the Minister of Police to declare a blanket amnesty, similar in many ways to the one adopted in Brazil. They are also recommending that the collection program should be accompanied by a gun destruction campaign so that they are never used to commit another murder.

Notwithstanding these many initiatives, gun violence is reaching crisis proportions in both Brazil and South Africa. A citizen from either country is intentionally murdered every few hours by a bullet. In South African alone roughly 18 people are shot and killed a day. Many more suffer crippling injuries and untold pain and suffering. This does not mean that citizens should throw up their hands in despair. To the contrary: there are obvious lessons about what works and what does not when it comes to controlling gun violence. As regional powerhouses, Brazil and South Africa are seeking more authority in global affairs. But neither country can make a genuine claim to genuine global power status when this violent carnage persists in their own backyards.

*Robert Muggah delivered a TED talk in 2014 on how to reduce violence in cities around the world. It will go live in early 2015.