2005 Brazilian Firearms and Munitions Referendum

First Submitted By joelgriffett4

Most Recent Changes By Scott Fletcher

General Issues
Law Enforcement, Criminal Justice & Corrections
Governance & Political Institutions
Human Rights & Civil Rights
Specific Topics
Scope of Influence
Start Date
End Date
Make, influence, or challenge decisions of government and public bodies
Direct decision making
Spectrum of Public Participation
Open to All or Limited to Some?
Open to All
Decision Methods

The Brazilian Firearms and Munitions Referendum was a one-off binding vote for all Brazilian citizens on Article 35 of the Disarmament Statute. The referendum aimed to settle the debate on gun control in Brazil.

Problems and Purpose

The purpose of the Brazilian Firearms and Munitions Referendum was to put the debate surrounding the public legality of firearms into the hands of the population via direct participation in the form of a single vote. Brazilian citizens were asked the question, pertaining to Article 35 of the Disarmament Statute; “Should the marketing of firearms and ammunition be prohibited in Brazil? " and it was a simple yes/no vote[1].

Background History and Context 

 Brazil has one of the highest intentional homicide rates in the world, which has increased exponentially by 346% since 1980[2]. Brazil’s history has been marred by violent crime, largely due to drug trafficking and organized crime syndicates within the country, with an average of 39,000 firearms death per year[3]. In relation to homicide, 17 of the 50 most dangerous cities in the world are also located in Brazil[4]. The country is also the second largest manufacturer of small arms in the Western Hemisphere, second only to the USA.

A disarmament campaign began in 1997, organised by students of the University of Sao Paulo. They promoted the voluntary surrender of firearms, which by 2005 numbered almost half a million. Over sixty gun control bills were put to congress before the Disarmament Statute of 2003 implemented tougher regulations on the sale of firearms and enacted the voluntary surrender of arms into law, with 2000 collection points across Brazil. The disarmament campaign continued to raise awareness on gun crime prevention and the project had the slogan ‘Protect your Family, Disarm Yourself’[5].

The legal age to purchase firearms was raised from 21 to 25, extensive psychological and shooting tests were introduced, as well as the prohibition of civilians carrying a gun in public. Only members of the armed forces, law enforcement or intelligence agencies are licensed to carry a gun in public. In the 4 years after the statute was implemented the murder rate dropped by 12%[6] which prompted congress to put the matter of gun control to the public, under article 35 of the statute, which set out provisions of the public prohibition of firearms.

Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities 

 The debate for the gun-control referendum was sparked in 1997 by a disarmament movement set up by students of the University of Sao Paolo, who encouraged the voluntary surrender of firearms in an attempt to lower rates of violence and mortality. Other social movements and associations promoting the right to life over the right to self-defence also existed, with international support from the United Nations. Funding for the pro-life campaign totalled around BZL$2.5 million, with significant donations coming from the Brazilian Football Confederation and drinks manufacturer Ambev[7]. 

The Brazilian gun lobby represented the pro-gun stance in the referendum, with financial support from the American National Rifle Association (NRA). The Viva Brazil Movement are a civil non-profit organisation who were also involved in the referendum debate, promoting individual rights and freedoms over state intervention. Brazilian arms manufacturing companies Taurus and Companhia Brasileira de Cartuchos (Brazilian Cartridge Company) donated BZL$5 million to the pro-gun campaign[8].

As it was a nationwide democratic process the cost of voting day was funded by Brazilian tax-payers.

Participant Recruitment and Selection  

Participant selection was open to all citizens of voting age. Voting in the referendum was compulsory for citizens aged 18 to 70, and for those over 16 or over 70 it was optional. Each voter was expected to cast their vote in the state in which they resided in, unless they had previously arranged special dispensation to vote in another district on the day of the referendum. 

Methods and Tools Used

Know what methods or tools were used? Help us complete this section!

What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation

Participation was carried out in the form of a single vote per person on the question posited by the referendum, and voting was carried out in each Brazilian electoral district via electronic ballot. The question posited; “Should the marketing of firearms and ammunition be prohibited in Brazil?" was answered by the electorate with a simple yes/no vote.

There was a 20-day media campaign in the run up to the referendum in October 2005, in which both sides of the debate received equal media and television time championing their view. At the same time as this, the Mensalao corruption scandal emerged within congress and the ‘yes’ side favoured by the government became an unattractive option to many who wished to voice their distaste with the actions of certain members of parliament. The media campaigns by both sides were where most voters’ decision was formulated and therefore a form of facilitation was present, but the nature of a referendum is more a private decision than a collective deliberation.

The Coalition for Legitimate Self-Defence brought together various hunting and sporting associations and started an effort via the Internet to organize people to try and preserve the citizens’ legal right to bear arms.

Influence, Outcomes, and Effects

The Brazilian government put the issue to a popular vote with the support of the UN and the Roman Catholic church with the expectation of winning, but it backfired. The outcome of the referendum was a rejection of the total prohibition of civilian firearms. Almost 64% of the population voted against the gun control proposition, a total of almost 60 million people. The referendum was binding so the public had full control over the outcome of the decision. All 27 states of Brazil voted ‘no’ in the referendum, and Rio Grande do Sul had the strongest opposition to gun control with 86.8% of votes in favour of ‘no’[9].

Analysis and Lessons Learned 

Despite initial estimates of around 80% of Brazilians allegedly supporting the pro-ban, anti-gun position[10], the result was overwhelmingly in favour of rejection of the prohibition of firearms, and there are a multitude of extenuating circumstances that explain this mass shift in public opinion. The pro-gun side of the debate played largely on people’s fear of the chronic violence experienced daily on the streets of Brazilian cities, claiming that the ban of firearms would increase violence rather than prevent it, as criminals still had access to illegal weapons trafficked into the country. But this is not the case because in 2014 68% of the firearms seized by Brazilian police were made my Brazilian arms manufacturers like Taurus[11].

The ‘no’ campaign also utilised rhetoric based on the Brazilian Constitutional right to self-defence, which is perplexing as no civilian in Brazil is legally permitted to carry a firearm in public, and the constitution makes no specific references to self-defence using a weapon. The gun lobby emphasised the need for ‘good’ citizens to protect themselves when the police could not, but espousing this argument is encouraging the population to break the law by carrying a firearm to protect themselves from other criminals.

The pro-gun side were also favoured by chronic political and police corruption. The Mensalao scandal emerged in June 2005, and it was discovered that members of parliament were being paid up to BZL $30,000 dollars a month to support presidential projects[12]. As this scandal unravelled, the pro-gun side of the argument became less related to firearms themselves and rather a rejection of the government authority as a whole. Despite these high levels of government corruption in Brazil, turnout at Parliamentary and Presidential elections in 2002 and 2006 remains around 5% higher than the 78% turnout of the referendum[13]. This is puzzling as the logical assumption in such a politically corrupt country would be that a direct vote on policy would be much more effective and mobilising than delegating responsibility to representatives. 

There were also various fundamental flaws in the design of the referendum. In the run up to the vote the Electoral Justice system, responsible for preventing election related crime, prohibited donations to organisations who received international funding. This affected only the pro-ban side of the debate as they received support from groups like the UN, whereas the pro-gun side were supported by independent and private organisations like the NRA. This action essentially prevented the pro-ban side of the debate from having equal footing in the process of deliberation.

The outcome of the referendum resulted in the continuation of the strict gun laws in put in place by the Disarmament Statute of 2003. This coupled with the downfall of two former Brazilian presidents, Dilma Roussef[14] and Lula da Silva on corruption charges[15] has paved the way for the right-wing, pro-gun Jair Bolsonaro to take office in Brazil as of 2018. One of his flagship policies to combat an ever-growing homicide rate is to relax the gun controls in place since 2003, and a bill dating back to 2012 reversing the age restrictions and background checks has already been debated by congress since Bolsonaro’s election.

If they had decided to re-run the referendum after the result, a suggestion for improvement would be to extend the compulsory voting to 16- and 17-year olds as well. This is due to gun crime and homicide disproportionally affecting 16 to 25-year olds in Brazil. A downside to innovations in direct democracy like referenda is a tendency for one side of the argument to campaign in a complacent manner, often due to the fact they have morality on their side. The initial outburst of public and media support for the ‘yes’ side may have led them to believe the referendum outcome too soon. This is similar to the 2016 European Union referendum in the UK where the remain side were complacent from the outset and lost to a negative campaign of fear propaganda from the leave side, a campaign mirrored by the pro-gun advocates in Brazil at the time of the firearms referendum.

As referenda are the purest form of direct democracy, they only involve a single vote, which means there is a lack of deliberation inherent in the decision-making process. With a yes/no vote the two sides form polarizing factions in the debate, and the nature of the question posed to the Brazilian electorate limited the scope for an amicable solution to the matter of gun crime. This is due to the only two options being complete firearm prohibition, which already existed to a certain extent as it was illegal for firearms to be carried in public, or a continuation of the laws which prohibited firearms in public. Neither scenario would have been successful in preventing homicide and gun crime and most gun attacks in Brazil were surprise ones, often between citizens who were already acquainted. A more deliberative and interactive form of participation would have been more appropriate, with independent facilitators on hand to give impartial statistics to voters, rather than a tug of war between a corrupt government and the gun lobby.

See Also


[1] Pogrebinschi, Thamy. (2017). LATINNO Dataset. Berlin: WZB.2017

[2] Cavalcanti, Roxana P., 2017, Armed Violence and the Politics of Gun Control in Brazil: An Analysis of the 2005 Referendum, Bulletin of Latin American Research, Vol. 36, No. 1, pp. 36–51, , King’s College London, UK

[3] Tran, Mark, 24th Oct 2005, Brazilian Gun Ban backfires, The Guardian,

[4] Dillinger, Jessica, April 2018, 50 most dangerous cities,


[6] Darlington, Shasta, Dec 1st 2018, Brazil’s New Leader wants to ease Gun Laws, New York Times,




[10] Tran, Mark, 24th Oct 2005, Brazilian Gun Ban backfires, The Guardian,

[11] Muggah, Robert, July 20th 2016, Brazil’s Gun Violence Problem is ‘Made in Brazil’ Huffington Post, 

[12] Cavalcanti, Roxana P., 2017, Armed Violence and the Politics of Gun Control in Brazil: An Analysis of the 2005 Referendum, Bulletin of Latin American Research, Vol. 36, No. 1, pp. 36–51, King’s College London, UK


[14] Romero, Simon, August 31st 2016 ‘Dilma Rousseff Is Ousted as Brazil’s President in Impeachment Vote’, New York Times,

[15] Prengaman, Peter, April 8th, 2018, Brazil’s ex-President Lula da Silva jailed for graft, USA Today,

External Links


Edit case