Latin America has some of the highest gun homicide rates in the world, despite certain countries having relatively strict gun control laws, raising the question: to what extent, if any, does tighter legislation help to lower homicide rates and violent crime in the region?
The short answer to this question is that there is no clear correlation. A look at six countries with widely differing gun legislation and gun homicide statistics — Mexico, Brazil, Venezuela, Honduras, Chile and Uruguay — shows that gun legislation, on its own, means little in terms of gun violence. Understanding gun violence seems more predicated on understanding the dynamics of crime in a country, and the weaknesses of state institutions, than on studying the laws in place.
The question of how to lower gun violence is critical. Latin America and the Caribbean are two of the most violent regions in the world and in 21 of 23 countries studied by Small Arms Survey, the percentage of total homicides committed with guns is greater than the global average of 42 percent.
Not surprisingly, two of the most violent countries in the region have relatively lax laws. In Honduras — the world’s most dangerous country based on its total homicide rate of 91.6 per 100,000 residents — civilians can own up to five firearms, though proposed legislation would decrease this number to one and require citizens to acquire separate ownership and carrying licenses.
For its part, Venezuela has gradually expanded restrictions on carrying firearms in public and, in 2012, banned the commercial sale of guns. However, until recently few regulations existed and recently passed legislation allows for the eventual reopening of gun shops.
Both countries suffer from gun violence. In Honduras, 85 percent of homicides were committed with a gun in 2011, with a gun homicide rate of 78.2 per 100,000, according to Organization of American States (OAS) figures. Venezuela also had a high gun homicide rate of 37 per 100,000 residents in 2011, according to the UN.
However, lax or strict gun laws do not seem to correspond to gun violence in other countries. Gun legislation in Uruguay and Chile, for instance, is fairly moderate. In Uruguay, a person must be over 18 to own a gun, obtain a permit and have undergone a basic training course but can legally purchase a weapon, and arms trafficking is not a legally recognized crime. Chile requires all civilians to register firearms and undergo background checks, prohibits them from carrying fully automatic weapons or machine guns, and the carrier must be of age.
Despite the availability, Uruguay’s 2011 intentional homicide rate was 5.9 per 100,000 residents, with 57 percent of murders committed by firearm in 2005; and Chile’s 2011 homicide rate was 3.1 per 100,000, with 31 percent attributed to firearms, according to OAS statistics.
At the other end of the legal spectrum sit Mexico and Brazil, two countries fighting extreme gun violence. Mexico is commonly considered to have some of the strictest gun legislation in the region -– there is only one, military-owned gun store in the country. Civilians are prohibited from owning military grade weapons, cannot carry a gun outside their home, and must undergo rigorous background checks to obtain an ownership license.
In Brazil, civilians are also prohibited from owning weapons characteristic of those used by the armed forces and from carrying guns in public, except in exceptional circumstances. A person must be 25 to acquire a gun. Additionally, the country has carried out disarmament campaigns, which a study by Brazilian institute IPEA found helped lower violent crime in São Paulo state between 2001 and 2007.
More than half of Mexico’s homicides were committed with a gun, and close to 90 percent of Brazil’s involved a firearm.
What explains the fact that six countries with strict, moderate, or lax gun legislation have vastly different gun homicide rates?
Small Arms Survey research associate Matthias Nowak told InSight Crime that a number of other factors such as the presence of armed groups, drug trafficking, and the strength of institutions “enter into the equation.”
“Institutions have a central effect,” he said.
Though Nowak maintained that legislation is important, he said it “is just one part of a more complex picture that needs to come together to respond to a very complex phenomenon.” An important part of this “picture” is enforcement, as shown by a study on a 2009 gun ban in Colombia, which found that the ban helped reduce gun violence because it was accompanied by tough police confiscation measures.
Honduras has a conflation of factors that inhibit enforcement and foster high levels of violence: weak judicial institutions, criminalized police and a heavy gang presence. Uruguay, on the other hand, is a country with historically little organized crime presence.
Nowak also said the highly concentrated nature of gun violence — in border regions and drug trafficking hubs, for example — makes it difficult to find conclusive patterns on the impact of gun policy. The countries with more rigid gun laws, Brazil and Mexico, both have lower overall gun homicide rates than Honduras or Venezuela, but have areas with pockets of extreme violence.
According to numbers from Mexico’s national statistics institute INEGI, Guerrero and Chihuahua — two states greatly affected by the country’s drug war — had homicide rates far higher than the rest of the country in 2012, making it likely that gun homicides were also largely concentrated in these areas.
In Brazil, the national gun homicide rate stayed fairly stable from 2000 to 2010, according to an NGO count. However, a recent study found it dropped significantly in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo states, aided by investments in security, while rising steeply in northern states such as Alagoas. This was attributed to those states’ institutional incapacity to face migrating crime.
Brazil’s example also indicates that violence fuelled by social factors and common crime may have a greater potential to be mitigated by enforcement or disarmament schemes than violence caused by organized crime groups, such as drug cartels.
The relationship between gun legislation and gun violence becomes even murkier if another factor is thrown into the mix: gun availability.
Arms trafficking is a major illicit industry in the region. Large numbers of unregistered firearms are concentrated in Mexico, with nearly 13 million, and Brazil, with up to 9.6 million, unregistered.
Trafficking is difficult to control, even with prohibitive gun policies in place. Brazil, the second-largest producer of firearms in the Western Hemisphere, exports many of its arms to other countries in the region, but these are often smuggled back across its porous borders. Many of Mexico’s weapons are thought to be trafficked from the largely unregulated US arms industry, while there is evidence some of the most lethal weapons used by Mexican cartels originate from Central America.
Even so, there is “no clear relationship between gun ownership and gun violence at the international level,” according to Nowak.
“You don’t need a lot of guns to commit a lot of homicides if they’re in the wrong hands,” he explained.
This is seen in the case of Honduras and Uruguay. Despite dramatically different homicide rates, they have very similar numbers of unregistered firearms, with around 600,000 in Honduras, and an estimated 500,000 in Uruguay. Even more surprising is that the per capita number of weapons in Uruguay is twice that of Honduras: 15 per 100 vs. 7 per 100.
A 2011 World Bank study found something similar: in Central America, as of 2007, there was little correlation between the estimated number of civilian-owned guns and homicide rates. The countries with the highest homicide rates — Honduras and El Salvador — had under half the estimated guns per capita as Guatemala, while Panama, with the second-lowest homicide rate, had the second-highest number of guns.
In short, a regulated approach may reduce gun ownership and have an impact on petty crime and casual violence, but gun legislation alone will do little to reign in the criminal groups responsible for the rampant violence in the region’s most murderous areas.