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JDI Latin America and Caribbean Unit


Supporting research on crime and citizen security, and the professional development of policing in the LAC region.


The Relationship between Firearm Proliferation and Violence in Latin America

By Diego Sanjurjo, on 22 July 2020

The vast majority of Latin American countries share a similar trend of rising crime and violence. Most forms of violent crime have intensified, with property crime being the most notorious. Nonetheless, homicides are easier to account for. Murders experienced an 11 percent increase in the region between 2000 and 2010, resulting in more than 2.5 million killings since the turn of the century. Furthermore, homicides have arguably turned into a Latin American singularity, because it is the only region in the world in which murder rates increased during the first decades of the twenty-first century. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the region surpassed Africa for the first time and became the region with the highest number of murders globally, both in absolute numbers as in relation to its population.

Guns are fundamental in these dynamics and their use as murder weapons supposes a particularity of the Latin American homicide epidemic. Firearms were used to commit around 50 percent of all homicides worldwide between 2010 and 2015[i], but their impact in Latin America is even more pronounced. In Brazil and in Central America, for instance, gun homicides correspond to at least 70% of the total. Their use in non-lethal forms of crime has drastically increased as well in recent decades, while national reports show that rising insecurity and mistrust in state authorities appear to be linked to increase popular disposition to acquire them as instruments of self-defense. Hence, self-protection and criminal predatory behaviour fuel a rising demand for guns in a region that already possesses important surpluses dating back to the civil wars and military dictatorships of the 20th century.

As a result, the best and latest available estimates indicate that there are approximately 71 million small arms[ii] in Latin America. Among these, 14 percent belong to state security forces and paramilitary forces. The remaining 86 percent likely belong to civilians, resulting in a relatively low average country distribution of 9.87 civil guns per every 100 residents. Among independent countries and territories, national estimates of firearm ownership vary considerably, ranging between 2 firearms per every 100 inhabitants in Bolivia, Peru and Cuba, to 34.7 in Uruguay[iii]. Despite being on opposite ends of the gun-ownership spectrum, these countries present relatively low levels of violence. It is an indication that the relationship between civilian gun ownership and firearm homicides is not linear (Figure 01), and the correlation between gun proliferation and crime is usually low. This is not a distinctive feature of the region. The United States’ estimated gun ownership rate is 12 times higher than Latin America’s average, but its firearm homicide rate is 7 times lower.

Figure 01: Estimates of civilian guns (2017) and violent deaths by guns (2016).

Source: Own elaboration using estimations by Karp (2018) and Small Arms Survey (n.d.).

The influence of gun proliferation on violence and insecurity is more complex and difficult to predict than the regional literature usually suggests. Efforts to find evidence of causality are strongly contested and in-depth studies have not been carried out in the region. Ultimately, guns can be an effective instrument for personal defence against crime, as well as a lethal instrument to generate violence, commit crimes, and confront state security policies. However, their influence on regional violence presents distinctive particularities that go beyond such a linear relation. Guns do not suppose a problem in Latin America because of their sheer quantity, but due to their prominent incidence in crime and violence at an aggregate level. Indeed, lethal gun violence is not only disproportionally high, but national violent death rates also show a positive correlation with the percentage of violent deaths committed with firearms. In other words, countries in Latin America with high rates of violence also tend  to have high percentages of violent deaths committed with firearms (see Figure 02). This is the case in countries like Brazil, El Salvador, Honduras, Jamaica or Venezuela, for instance.

Figure 02: National violent death rates and percentage of violent deaths committed with firearms (2016)

Source: Own elaboration using data from Small Arms Survey (n.d.);

The relationship between gun availability and armed violence is not linear, and this phenomenon does not constitute evidence of causality between gun proliferation and homicides. However, it does suggest important correlations that cannot be ignored. The proliferation of small arms leads to different consequences in Argentina than in Guatemala. Even between territories, cities, and neighbourhoods, small arms trigger different processes. It is significantly more likely for a gun to be used to commit a homicide in Central America than in the Southern Cone of South America. Therefore, as important as the quantity of firearms and their capability to produce harms, it is also the circumstances that surround firearms that determine their lethality.

What this relationship suggests is that firearms seem to add fuel to the fire in violent places. If the presence of a gun during a fight between neighbors can make the difference between a broken nose and a murder, a similar dynamic occurs at the macro level, whereby easy access to firearms can contribute to extreme levels of violence. One way of looking at it is through an epidemiological approach and the variation of local risk factors. Accordingly, small arms represent one factor among many: social exclusion, weak institutional contexts, rapid and uncontrolled urbanization, a recent history of armed conflict, violent events in neighbouring countries, high percentages of young men who do not work nor study, the presence of organized criminal groups, and the expansion of illegal markets. A quick overview of the region suggests that all countries concentrate some of these factors to a certain extent. Most experience several risk factors, and some are severely affected by all of them.

Ultimately, such extended structural deficits make the proliferation of small arms especially pernicious in Latin America, as the easy access to guns triggers (and exponentially increases) what is already an explosive combination of risk factors. Under these circumstances, it seems reasonable to suggest that a more restricted access to firearms is an insufficient but rational policy step.

[i] Even though Latin America is the region with the highest proportion of gun homicides, the information on homicidal mechanisms in places such as Africa, Southern Asia, or Southeast Asia is very scarce, which may result in under-reporting (GDS 2015).

[ii] For the purposes of this post, I use the terms ‘small arms’, ‘firearms’ and ‘guns’ interchangeably and refer to the following items: revolvers and self-loading pistols; rifles and carbines; shotguns; sub-machine guns; and light and heavy machine guns.

[iii] The national firearm ownership rate informs us about the national firearm culture. Societies with the highest rates are those with (1) an important tradition of owning and using firearms, such as in Guyana, Paraguay, and Uruguay; or with (2) access to the powerful small arms market of the United States, such as in the cases of the Bahamas, Puerto Rico, Surinam, Mexico, and Panama.

Diego Sanjurjo holds a Ph.D. in political science from the Autonomous University of Madrid, he is currently the Coordinator of the Policing and Preventive Police Component of the Comprehensive Citizen Security Program of the Uruguayan Ministry of Interior. His main research areas include public policy and security, gun and drug policies. He is the author of “Gun Control Policies in Latin America” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2020).

The views expressed in this blog post are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of UCL, the Department of Security and Crime Science or the JDI LAC Unit.