Crime & Justice

Poorly armed Chile joins world anti-gun debate

By Patricia Nieto Mariño

Santiago, Jun 16 (EFE).- The murder of a police officer last week on the outskirts of Santiago, killed with a gunshot to the head, has revived the debate about gun ownership in Chile, the subject also being a hot-button issue in the United States after the latest mass killings that have left dozens of dead there.

Chile’s president, the progressive Gabriel Boric, announced during a public address on June 1 that he would seek a total ban on firearm ownership by civilians, just days after in Texas a teenage gunman massacred 19 children and two teachers in an elementary school.

As the world wept over the US tragedy, the shooting deaths of two police officers in less than a month has plunged Chile into mourning, just weeks after a young female journalist was shot to death as she was covering a demonstration.

“Chile without guns is a safer Chile,” said Boric during his presentation of a nationwide “Zero Tolerance” program to remove guns from civilian hands.

Since then, a number of government-supporting mayors have backed Boric’s decision, while the ultraright and other independent political blocs have launched a battle against the move.

The People’s Party (PDG) recently presented a bill to enshrine in the Constitution the right to bear arms and other conservative groups claim that the solution to gun violence does not lie in banning them.

According to The Small Arms Survey – a report by the University of Geneva’s Global Studies Institute – in Chile there are about 2.2 million firearms, or 12 per every 100 residents.

The figure is similar to the 15 guns per 100 residents in the European Union, but it is far below the 120 per 100 residents in the US.

Experts agree that, despite the fact that Chile is not an especially heavily-armed country, the debate has its roots in an increasing sense of lack of security, one of the public’s main concerns.

Although along with Uruguay, Chile has the lowest murder rate in the region, over the past three years there has been a “drastic” rise in crime and in the use of firearms, Alejandro Mohor, an academic at the University of Chile’s Citizens Security Studies Center, told EFE.

“Periods of score-settling, drug trafficking and assaults are more and more frequent, and this has opened up a debate that didn’t exist a few years ago,” she said.

According to official figures, while in 2019 about 43 percent of all murders in Chile were committed using firearms, in 2021 the figure was 51 percent and that number has climbed to 60 percent so far this year.

Jorge Araya, an expert on security at the University of Santiago, told EFE that in Chile the sale of firearms brings in $30 million per year, but “it’s not an industry that has the ability to lobby the political system,” in contrast to the situation in the US.

Even so, he forecast that the debate will continue due to “the high persistence of lack of security, drug trafficking and contract killings, issues that in the past did not exist and which lead to the right to bitterly defend arming oneself.”

In the armaments sector, gun manufacturers and dealers say that this is a highly regulated area and that every aspect of it is surrounded with bureaucracy and with current law requiring that gun buyers take a training course, psychological tests and have no prior criminal record.

“Chile has one of the strictest sets of regulations in the world,” Ennio Mangiola, the president of the Chilean Gun Shop Owners Association, told EFE.

Gun sales have been dropping over the past decade due to the many legal requirements, although in the past two years, he said, “there has been an explosive resurgence of guns for personal defense.”

“We’re facing a complete failure of the state in the area of security and the natural result is that people will look to protect their lives and those of their family,” Josefa Rodriguez, the director of the Chilean Rifle Association, told EFE.

The activist and shooting sportswoman said that the debate should not focus only on banning guns but rather “on controlling the trafficking of (the guns) that enter the country illegally.”

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