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DISARMAMENT-ARGENTINA: Gun Swap Takes Aim at Violence

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, Jun 15 2007 (IPS) - With strong support from peace and disarmament groups and the families of shooting victims, the Argentine government launched a programme Friday that encourages people to voluntarily swap their legal or illegal firearms for cash.

The disarmament campaign, similar to one that was carried out in Brazil in 2004, forms part of a comprehensive violence prevention policy, which includes stricter controls on both the legal and black market for guns.

In Argentina, one out of 10 people over the age of 18 say they have a gun, and more than half say they carry them around “for protection.”

A study carried out this year by the Mora y Araujo polling firm found that as a result of the increase in violent crime in Argentina, more people now believe that it is a good idea to own or carry a gun for self-defence.

But official statistics show that between 1991 and 2004, the number of accidental firearm deaths rose 80 percent, and the number of suicides involving guns increased by 60 percent.

“Guns in homes do not provide protection, but instead increase the risk of accidents and deaths among civilians,” Darío Kosovsky, a member of the Institute of Comparative Studies in Criminal and Social Sciences and the Argentine Disarmament Network (RAD), told IPS.

Under the gun buy-back scheme that got underway Friday, anyone who owns a firearm, whether registered or unregistered, will have six months to hand their weapons over in exchange for cash sums running from 100 to 450 pesos (34 to 150 dollars). They will be able to anonymously swap their guns in both fixed and mobile stations set up for the purpose around the country by the Interior Ministry.

All kind of guns – revolvers, pistols, shot guns, carbines and rifles – as well as ammunition will be made unusable in front of the person who turned them over, and later destroyed by smelting, under supervision of the authorities and civil society groups.

An amnesty for those who surrender illegal weapons will be in effect for the entire six months.

“Once that deadline is up, strict laws will be in effect, and anyone who has an illegal firearm will go to prison,” said Interior Minister Anibal Fernández during the ceremony presenting the national gun swap programme.

As a signal of the government’s strong support for the plan, the ceremony in the seat of government was attended by both President Néstor Kirchner and Vice President Daniel Scioli, as well as representatives of groups working for disarmament and relatives of people who have been shot to death.

According to the National Firearms Registry (RENAR), there are 1.2 million legally owned guns in Argentina and at least that many unregistered guns.

The results of the Mora y Araujo poll coincided with those figures, indicating that 2.2 million civilians are armed in this country of 37 million people.

Kosovsky, who participated in the design of the gun swap programme, said its implementation is “a historic step forward and a great effort by the state” in the fight against citizen violence.

“This programme is going to reduce the number of guns circulating among the civilian population, while at the same time helping to send a compelling message to society that it is the state that must have a monopoly on the use of legitimate violence, not the citizens,” he said.

The author of “Citizen Sheriffs: Guns and Violence in Argentina” (“El ciudadano Sheriff. Armas y violencia en Argentina”) said the idea is not to combat crime but to reduce gun-related violence in which a large number of people are injured or killed.

In 2003, 10 people a day died in Argentina from gunshot wounds, but only three of the 10 deaths were robbery-related, according to the government’s Secretariat for Criminal Policy. The rest were the result of fights or accidents.

The initiative is the end result of a proposal presented to the Interior Ministry by the organisations that make up RAD.

In drawing up their proposal, the groups took into account gun swaps carried out in cities in the eastern province of Buenos Aires and the western province of Mendoza, as well as the disarmament campaign in Brazil, where some 440,000 firearms were withdrawn from circulation in 2004.

The Brazilian gun swap was followed by a referendum in which voters decided against a ban on small arms sales. Nevertheless, the number of gun-related deaths, which had been growing steadily since the early 1990s, began to go down for the first time in Brazil after the gun buy-back scheme.

According to official statistics, firearms are the second cause of death in Argentina, and 28 percent of shooting deaths are the result of accidents or homicides involving guns kept in homes. In cases of domestic violence, the presence of firearms increases the risk of death 12-fold.

Late last year, the consensus on this issue between the centre-left Kirchner administration and the groups comprising the RAD led to passage of a law granting a temporary amnesty for those who surrendered illegal weapons.

In addition, an inventory of all firearms, both registered and unregistered, and those in the hands of civilians as well as the police and armed forces, will be carried out.

The first gun swap station is to open Jun. 28 in the town of Necochea, 600 kilometres south of the capital, in the province of Buenos Aires. That town is home to the parents of Alfredo Marcenac, who was shot and killed by a stranger last year as he walked down a Buenos Aires street.

The aggressor, who had a gun licence despite the fact that he was mentally ill, simply began to shoot people at random on the street.

These risks will also be prevented through stricter controls by RENAR, which up to now was considered by RAD to be overly lax in granting gun licences. RENAR even offered people the possibility of applying for a licence on-line, although the process was completed with a home visit by a public employee.

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