Post shooting, Brazil looks itself in the mirror

Are the people that pull the trigger and kill innocent people the problem? Or the gun in their hands? Or both?

    After a school shooting, there are usually three distinct phases: First the immediate shock of how anybody could do such a thing, followed by grief of young lives ended too soon, and finally the inevitable calls for more gun control.

    Brazil is a country still very much grieving, and for good reason. It was last Thursday, just before 9am, when a 24-year-old mentally ill man named Wellington Menezes de Oliveira walked into a packed middle school classroom in the working class neighbourhood of Realengo in Rio de Janeiro and starting executing students who were barely teenagers.

    According to eyewitnesses, he had a 38 calibre pistol in one hand, and a 32 calibre in the other - pulling the trigger of each as fast as his fingers would allow.

    Oliveira, a former student at the school who might have been a victim of bullying, had a "speed loader" which allowed him to re-load his pistols with minimum delay to continue the killing spree.

    Oliveira was shot by police and died at the scene.

    But not before he had killed 12 kids - 10 girls and 2 boys, ranging from 12 to 15 years old.  All have been laid to rest in funerals that were painfully emotionally to watch first hand.

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    Photo: A reproduction from Brazilian magazine Epoca of some of the students killed in the Rio school shooting.

    Six other kids remain hospitalised. Two remain in critical condition a 13-year-old boy shot through the eye and a 14-year-old boy shot in the abdomen and hand who can only breathe today with the help of a machine.

    Rio de Janeiro has a well-earned reputation for being a violent city, but never before has the city or country seen a school massacre the scale of what happened last week.

    "I thought school shootings only happened in other countries," one Brazilian man told me. "I never thought I would see the day it happened here."

    Sadly, that day has now arrived. But now this country is moving to another predictable element to this story: Gun laws.

    Only hours after the shooting Brazil’s justice minister, Jose Eduardo Cardoso, said he wanted to reinforce the national disarmament campaign, set for June.

    And on Tuesday Brazil's senate will start discussing the idea of a bill, likely to be put to a national vote, banning the sale of hand guns and ammunition to non-law enforcement entities.

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    Photo: Headlines in the Brazilian press showed the horror of the shooting.

    Brazil already has strict gun laws on the books restricting who can legally buy and carry guns on the street. The key word is legally. That word is not in the vocabulary of most bad guys.

    Anti-gun groups in Brazil estimate there are between 15-20 million illegal firearms in the country, in all sizes and brands, most smuggled into Brazil through the Paraguay border.

    And that is why in 2005 Brazil put to the voters a landmark referendum that asked a simple and straight forward question: “Should the commercial sale of guns and ammunition to civilians be prohibited?” Fifty nine million people (64% of the votes cast) said no. The measure failed after it looked as though in the run-up to the vote it would narrowly pass.  

    Only about two million Brazilians legally own guns, so what the vote equated to was 59 million people voted to uphold a "right" for two million users, even though there is no such right in the Brazilian constitution to bear arms.

    So why would a country with so many people affected by gun violence vote to keep guns legal? That seemed odd to observers who analysed the vote afterwards.

    Reporter Kelly Hearn investigated the referendum vote and discovered that the National Rifle Association (NRA), the powerful American pro-gun lobby, was allegedly quietly working behind the scenes advising their Brazilian counterparts how to frame their arguments as a "rights" issue and not a "gun" issue.

    According to Hearn's reporting at the time, the NRA even sent one of their Washington DC lobbyists to Sao Paulo to advise the pro-gun movement in Brazil. Some of the pro-gun campaign material showed Hitler, invoking the idea that Brazilian’s need the ‘right’ to guns to always protect themselves from monsters.

    According to this report in Foreign Policy in 2005, the NRA was making an international push to securee gun rights in key countries, including Brazil.

    Brazilian journalist Leonardo Attuch, a columnist for ISTOE magazine, wrote this week that Brazilians only voted against banning handguns in 2005 after a, "wide campaign of dis-information financed by private interests".

    On Monday I called the NRA national headquarters in Fairfax, Virginia, USA, to ask them for a response, check the facts from 2005, and see if they had any thoughts about gun control in Brazil in light of the shooting in Rio.

    I was transferred to a polite woman in the press office who told me to send an email with my questions. I did. I never heard back.

    To this day, gun control advocates in Brazil credit the backdoor influence of the NRA as key to confusing the voters and swaying the 2005 vote.

    It was a monumental defeat for the anti-gun movement, not only in Brazil, but also internationally. 

    But that was 2005. And now, here we are, six years later. There will be the inevitable debate of: Who kills? Are the people that pull the trigger and kill innocent people the problem? Or the gun in their hands? Or both?

    Or does it even matter? Is that the wrong question to even start with?

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    Photo: Wellington Menezes de Oliveira, the Rio school shooter. 

    Consider the twisted and shady web of hand-offs that ultimately landed the pistols in the hands of Oliveira in the first place: Police say Oliveira bought the illegal pistols for the equivalent of $164 from two men, Charleston Souza de Lucena, 38, a locksmith, and Izaias de Souza, 48, who was unemployed.

    The two men apparently threw in five bullets with the purchase, as a bonus. One gun, police have determined, was recorded as stolen years ago. The other gun has no record.

    Both Lucena and Souza were easy to track down and quickly arrested by police. The men said they had no clue about Oliveira's deadly plan, they say they were just acting as intermediaries, selling the gun to Oliveira on behalf of someone else who illegally owned the guns.

    Police have yet to fully identify or track down the alleged "other person".

    But for their role in it all as "intermediaries", Lucena and Souza say they each received what is the equivalent of $18.95 for their work facilitating the sell. 

    Each man now faces between 4 and 8 years in prison for the sale of illegal weapons.

    Would a ban on firearms have prevented this illegality? You can decide.

    Here is where we are today: twelve innocent kids dead. More permanently maimed and clinging to life in a hospital ICU. The killer’s decomposing corpse in a Rio morgue his family has fled Rio and refuses to claim the body. The original gun-seller unknown. Two "intermediaries" jailed for selling weapons so they could make a quick 18 dollars and 95 cents.

    Based on the terrible scenes I saw at the funerals on Friday, countless parents, sisters, brothers, nieces, grandparents and dear friends of the victims now trapped in a forever hell that no future gun laws can solve, espeically after the fact. For them, the reality is that it's too late.

    They ask one question nobody seems to have an answer to: Why? The next question is: When? 

    Follow Gabriel Elizondo on Twiiter @elizondogabriel


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