It’s no secret that Latin America is rife with violence. A recent ranking from the Citizen’s Council for Public Security and Criminal Justice(CCSPJP) further illustrates this point with the top 10 most violent cities in the world being exclusively located in Latin America. Additionally, Latin America has the dishonor of having 43 of the 50 most violent urban centers located in the region.
But there is one elephant in the room that is largely ignored in the discussion of crime in Latin America: the stringent gun-control laws present in these countries.
While the previously mentioned factors cannot simply be discounted, the lack of coverage on Latin American gun control policy is rather alarming.
Countries like Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, and Venezuela feature some of the most draconian gun control policies in the region. With crime rates at already high levels, gun control simply makes matters worse for law-abiding citizens fearful of criminals.
A more detailed look at the countries’ gun laws is necessary to understand the degree of gun control that is prevalent in these countries.
Brazil has some of the most violent cities on the planet, with 19 of them in the CCSPJP’s top 50 rankings. Brazil’s notoriously high crime rates have spurred the Brazilian political class to enact all sorts of heavy-handed attempts to curb crime. Since the 1990s, Brazil has passed over a dozen pieces of gun control laws and regulations.
To own a firearm, Brazilians must be 25 years of age, hold a gun license, pay registration fees, and go through extensive background checks. Prior to 2004, only 3.5% of the Brazilian population legally owned firearms, all thanks to the country’s onerous registration system. Despite Brazil’s gun control status quo, crime rates have continued to rise without end.
Colombia is no stranger to violence. Violent encounters with the brutal guerilla forces of the FARC and drug cartels have been the norm in Colombia over the past few decades. While former Colombian President Álvaro Uribe’s security measures did play a considerable role in curtailing organized crime and guerilla warfare in the first decade of the 21st century, Colombia remains among the most violent countries in the region. Colombia features four cities in the CCSPJP’s top 50 most violent cities rankings.
Although the Colombian Constitution of 1991 does allow for civilians to possess and carry firearms, they still must go through considerable amounts of red tape to exercise their right to self-defense.
Civilians 18 and older are limited to the purchase and carry of small caliber handguns and shotguns with a license. However, higher caliber handguns and semi-automatic guns are prohibited, and can only be possessed under “exceptional circumstances.” Additionally, all guns must be registered with the military, which has a monopoly on the sale of weapons and issues all gun permits.
A 2014 study revealed that there are more than 500,000 legal guns in the hands of over 400,000 owners, with private security making up more than half of the ownership. This comes as no surprise when factoring in the aforementioned regulations.
One needn’t look any further than across the border in Mexico to comprehend the failures of gun control in curbing crime. Like Brazil and Colombia, Mexico has some of the most stringent gun control policies in the region.
With only one official gun store in the country, located in the capital of Mexico City, law-abiding citizens have very little options for attaining weapons. Potential buyers must not only submit references and demonstrate that their income was legally earned, they also must be photographed and fingerprinted. And once they’ve successfully jumped these hoops, they can only purchase one firearm.
Despite all the red tape in acquiring a firearm, Mexico is awash with guns in criminal hands.
This has not served the Mexican people well, as they are frequently at the mercy of powerful drug cartels.
While extreme, the Venezuelan case can shed light on the effects of gun control. The late Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro’s socialist policies have not only impoverished millions of Venezuelans, but they have also completely ripped the social fabric of Venezuelan society apart.
As a result, Venezuela has 10 of the most violent cities in all Latin America according to the CCSPJP’s ranking, with Caracas at the top of the list.
In response to the rampant levels of crime, the Venezuela government started by banning the private ownership of firearms in 2012. Studies show that while Venezuelan crime rates were already high before the ban, Venezuela’s gun control measures did not seem to make a dent on crime
With the Venezuelan government’s recent call to mobilize armed militia members, it makes sense for Venezuelans to be allowed to carry weapons for self-defense not only to protect themselves from common criminals, but from a government that has a proven track record of tyrannical behavior.
A Modest Proposal
What can be done in the short term to ameliorate the rampant degree of violence in Latin America?
For starters, it would behoove Latin American policymakers to consider tackling these problems from a self-defense angle. A good first step would be to allow law-abiding citizens to freely own and carry firearms for self-defense.
These policies would come in handy in a region where the integrity of law enforcement and military forces is frequently called into question. The harsh reality is that in many Latin American countries the lines between the political and criminal classes are blurry at best. Thus, counting on public entities to deliver security services in these countries is simply a fool’s errand.
Eighteenth-century Americans understood the importance of private gun ownership as a bulwark against potential tyranny. But gun ownership has also served as a practical means of self-defense for numerous citizens, especially when considering the inefficiency of police agencies in providing security.
All in all, Latin America would benefit from policies that allow law-abiding citizens to exercise their right to self-defense. While this may not be a cure-all for the region’s rampant violence, it at least gives the citizenry a fighting chance in the face of organized crime and authoritarian regimes.
José Niño is a graduate student based in Fort Collins, Colorado, and an analyst with the Acton Circle of Chile.
The AEC’s fundamental goal is to promote a free, responsible and prosperous society. Through education and improving public understanding of key economic questions, the AEC promotes the idea of a free market economy and the ideal of a free society.