The ad starts with a sober, simulated news report. A news anchor, looking directly into the camera, warns viewers about Brazil's proposed gun ban. "People are misrepresenting the disarmament issue," she says. "It won't disarm criminals." The anchor fades and a news-on-the-march montage begins, highlighting freedom's red-letter days. Nelson Mandela is released from prison. A single man impedes a row of tanks in Tiananmen Square. The Berlin Wall falls. "Your rights are at risk," says the anchor, returning after the inspiring film clips. "Don't lose your grip on liberty." And then, to bring the message home, archival footage runs of thousands of Brazilians taking to the streets, restoring popular rule after more than two decades of dictatorship.
The ad was the first in a series that aired on Brazilian prime-time television last October, when both sides of the country's gun control debate engaged in a heated exchange about the future of gun laws in South America's largest democracy. Proponents of the gun ban proposed outlawing the commercial sale of arms and ammunition to civilians, capping a series of controls enacted in recent years. Unless you were a police officer, a soldier, or a private security guard, you wouldn't be allowed to acquire a gun or the bullets to fire one. The idea was promoted by nongovernmental organizations in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, adopted by two presidential administrations, and then delayed for years due to the lobbying efforts of Brazil's arms manufacturers. Finally, it was to come to a vote, the first time any country held a popular referendum on gun laws.
But Brazil's gun poll was never just about Brazil. Brazil was merely the most recent battleground state in a raging global debate over gun rights. A week before the vote, the London-based International Action Network on Small Arms (IANSA), which represents more than 500 gun control organizations worldwide, coordinated an international day of support for the Brazilian ban. Demonstrations took place in Britain, Italy, South Africa, and Turkey, among other countries. Passage of the ban, IANSA said, would "reinforce the movement in favor of gun control in other Latin American countries riddled with armed violence, and back the efforts to control private gun ownership at [an] international level."
Polling numbers heading into the last month of the campaign gave gun control advocates every reason to be optimistic. As late as mid-September, support for the proposed ban was running at 73 percent, thanks in part to the backing of the federal government, the Roman Catholic Church, and Globo TV, a large media conglomerate. Yet, when Brazilians went to the mandatory polls on October 23, they handed the international gun control movement one of its most stinging defeats, rejecting the ban by a margin of nearly 2 to 1. The number of civilians in Brazil who legally own a gun is estimated to be only about 2 million. In other words, some 59 million Brazilians voted to preserve a prerogative the vast majority of them will never enjoy.
There was no single reason for the landslide defeat. Many voters voiced their discontent with a government mired in a corruption scandal. Others distrusted the government's pitch to disarm because they distrust the government. But few doubt that the ad campaign made the difference. During the three weeks the ads ran, support for the ban plummeted. "They didn't talk about guns," says Guaracy Mingardi, a São Paulo-based crime researcher affiliated with the United Nations. "They talked about rights."
The idea that owning a gun is a human right as dear as, say, the freedom to protest, was new to most Brazilians. But the rhetoric used in the Brazilian commercials echoed talking points used by local pro-gun groups in Australia, Britain, Canada, South Africa, and elsewhere. Such a line of argument might not exist if not for the National Rifle Association of America (NRA), which had shaped, tested, and honed the message before many of these groups ever existed. The NRA, perhaps America's most powerful political lobby, serves as spiritual godfather to gun groups around the world. Nor does it see its pro-gun agenda as one that stops at the water's edge. Indeed, shortly before the vote, NRA spokesperson Andrew Arulanandam said, "We view Brazil as the opening salvo for the global gun control movement. If gun control proponents succeed in Brazil, America will be next."
The NRA may not be actively funding gun lobbies around the world -- the organization claims its charter prohibits it -- but its influence is felt in much more than dollars. It lends support to the anti-gun control effort at the United Nations. It promotes lines of argument, strategy, and political tactics that others adopt for local use. And, if you contact the association, its representatives will come to explain how to get it done. Although many of the NRA's members may not own a passport, their leaders are savvy operators in international politics. For all their red-blooded American pretensions, they have a deep understanding of how globalization works. "We live in a very globalized society," says Thomas Mason, the American gun lobby's top representative at the United Nations. "[Y]ou can't say what happens in Scotland doesn't affect the United States, because it does."