In the wake of a gun ban, Venezuela sees rising homicide rate

In the wake of a gun ban, Venezuela sees rising homicide rate
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Since April 2017, at least 163 pro-democracy protesters in Venezuela have been murdered by the Maduro dictatorship. Venezuela serves as an example of how gun prohibition can sometimes encourage gun crime.

In 2012, the communist-dominated Venezuelan National Assembly enacted the "Control of Arms, Munitions and Disarmament Law." The bill’s stated objective was to “disarm all citizens.” The new law prohibited all gun sales, except to government entities. The penalty for illegally selling or carrying a firearm is a prison sentence of up to 20 years. Despite criticism from the democratic opposition, the bill went into effect in 2013.

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Ostensibly, the motive for gun prohibition was Venezuela’s out of control violent crime. In 2015, Venezuela’s homicide rate was the world’s highest, with 27,875 Venezuelans murdered that year. More broadly, the Bolivarian Republic is the only South American nation with a homicide rate that has steadily risen since 1995. In the year prior to Maduro’s disarmament initiative, the Venezuelan capital of Caracas had a homicide rate of 122 per 100,000 inhabitants, nearly 20 times the global average of 6.2.

 

By comparison, the U.S. homicide rate in 2015 was 4.9; the U.S. gun homicide rate was 3.03 (based on calculation from the FBI Uniform Crime Reports).

In 2011, 40 percent of homicides in Caracas stemmed from robberies. The 2009 National Survey of Victimization and Perception of Public Safety found that 70 percent of all major crime incidents in Caracas were armed robberies, 40 percent of which involved cellphones that were resold on the Venezuelan black market.

Communist economics, particularly the government’s seizure of private property without compensation, have been disastrous for Venezuela. As a result, 87 percent of Venezuelans live in poverty; 64.3 percent lost an average of 11 kilograms of weight in 2017. Given the statistical association between poverty and crime, Venezuela’s rampant violent crime and economic problems are linked.

The nicest explanation of Venezuelan gun confiscation is that, for a government that would never loosen its deadly stranglehold on the economy, its best alternative was to actively engage in reducing crime. Given that all legal firearms in Venezuela were already registered, complete disarmament should have been an easy task.

There are an estimated six million firearms (registered and unregistered) in Venezuela. However, voluntary surrenders were close to nil. For example, in 2013, only 37 firearms surrendered, while 12,603 were confiscated. More importantly, the national homicide rate rose from 73 per 100,000 in 2012 to 90 per 100,000 in 2015. The real figures are likely higher as the Maduro regime is well known for purposely undercounting crime.  

One effect of gun prohibition has been the increase of lethal violence against law enforcement. Venezuelan law enforcement are targeted specifically for their firearms with 252 officers being killed in 2015.

Nevertheless, the Maduro government has intensified efforts to disarm Venezuelans, investing $47 million in 2014 to establish 60 centers for voluntary firearm trade-ins and publicly destroying 1,939 confiscated firearms in 2016 as a show of political might.

As has been typical of tyrannies since the dawn of time, arms prohibition has aided in the suppression of dissent.  Indeed, the Venezuelan Violent Observatory has reported a notable increase in state violence; lethal extrajudicial force is frequently used against criminals and against political dissidents.  

In 2014 and 2017, many Venezuelans took to the streets to protest the Maduro regime’s looting of their economy and destruction of their democracy. In response, the dictatorship employed asymmetric warfare. Heavily-armed state officials and pro-government groups used lethal force against protesters who could defend themselves only with improvised arms such as rocks, fireworks, and giant slingshots that launched jars of paint and human excrement.

As Human Rights Watch reported, the Venezuelan government used live ammunition against protesters, but also fired rubber bullets and teargas canisters at point-blank range with the intent to kill. More than 30 protesters have lost their lives to these methods.

Pivotal to the suppression of protesters (and thus to the perpetuation of the Maduro dictatorship) are colectivos (or “collectives”): pro-government citizen gangs that carry out the regime’s rule by violence. Conceived by Hugo Chavez and trained by state security officials (who are in turn trained by the Cuban secret police), the colectivos paramilitaries are government proxies. They prevent the publication of unfavorable news, decide union disputes, and stifle political protests. Similar gangs are operated by Nicaragua’s Cuban-trained communist dictatorship, for similar purposes.

Moreover, the colectivos have impunity to injure and murder protesters. Providing the Maduro regime with a façade of deniability, the colectivos perpetrate the killings for which the Maduro regime wants to avoid public recrimination. Heavily armed, colectivos have even utilized machine guns against protesters.

How could such sophisticated weaponry fall into the hands of private citizens, given the nation’s stringent firearms prohibition? In 2017, the dictatorship announced that it was  providing weapons to approximately 400,000 “militiamen.”

In other words, the Maduro regime stripped Venezuelans of their right to self-defense and then transferred the confiscated firearms to its loyal thugs.

When the public is disarmed, ordinary criminals have greater impunity to rob and murder the innocent. So do criminal governments.

David Kopel(@DaveKopel) is research director and Vincent Harinam is a research associate at the Independence Institute (@i2idotorg), a free market think tank in Denver.