Primary Navigation News HomeU.S.BusinessWorldEntertainmentSportsTechPoliticsScienceHealthMost PopularIndex Secondary Navigation Photos Opinion Local News Odd News Comics Weather Full Coverage Video/Audio In the Hot Zone Search: All News & Blogs Yahoo! News Only News Photos Video/Audio Advanced Isolation, many dangers explain why Brazilians rejected gun ban By Jack Chang, Knight Ridder Newspapers CAREIRO CASTANHO, Brazil - For Ezaias Guedes da Lima and his neighbors in this Amazonian town, the idea of giving up their guns is as ridiculous as surrendering the machetes they have used to carve out livelihoods in the thick jungle. Life here is an isolated, dangerous affair, with only a handful of police covering a huge area and wild boar, alligators and other menaces a constant hazard. That isolation was demonstrated Thursday morning, when three men armed with pistols and revolvers calmly robbed the local bank of more than $50,000, much of it the paychecks of town residents. Local police didn't show up, although the thieves spent 30 minutes clearing out three safes. Federal police from the state capital of Manaus arrived only hours later, having to travel here by ferry and potholed roads. "Way out here, we can't depend on anyone to protect us," said da Lima, who runs a snack stand a stone's throw from the bank. "Before I would ban guns, I'd get rid of cigarettes first, then cachaca, then drugs." That sense of vulnerability goes a long way toward explaining why Brazilian voters on Oct. 23 rejected by nearly 2-to-1 a proposal that would have banned nearly all sales of guns and bullets to civilians. U.S. groups fighting the gun issue closely watched the vote, saying a successful gun ban in this 186 million-person country could have influenced American arms policy. Brazil claims the highest number of annual firearms deaths in the world, about 36,000 last year, according to its health ministry and the anti-violence advocacy group Viva Rio. By comparison, the United States, with a population nearly 60 percent larger, suffered about 30,000 firearms deaths in 2002, according to the most recent government numbers. That kind of death rate fuels a paranoia that from afar might be almost comical, if it weren't so tragic. Saturday, for example, dozens of motorists abandoned their cars inside a highway tunnel near the slum of Rocinha in Rio de Janeiro and fled on foot after they heard popping noises - the sounds, they feared, of another battle between drug-running gangs and police. The explosions turned out to be only firecrackers - though those, too, were gun-related, celebrating the burial of a top gang leader, Erismar Rodrigues Moreira, who was killed by police Saturday morning. Moreira ran the drug trade in Rocinha. Still, such celebrations of police actions are rare. More frequent are expressions of dismay at police scandals such as the March killing by federal police in Rio of 29 slum residents after eight of their colleagues were arrested on charges of abducting and killing two men. A report by the British human rights group Amnesty International released last week said the use of death squads and torture are common practices among Brazilian police. Only 35 percent of Brazilians said they had confidence in their police in an August poll by the research firm IBOPE. Rio resident Raquel Marques, who voted against the gun ban, said people have all but given up on their police. "I wouldn't be surprised if the police were sending arms to the criminals," Marques said. "We are totally alone." In remote areas such as Amazonas state, where 2.8 million people live in a region nearly the size of Alaska, government at any level is barely noticed. Lawlessness reigns, with slavery, illegal land seizures and wanton assassinations a fact of life. These were the regions where the gun ban failed most spectacularly. Compared with the 64 percent of the country who voted "No," rejection rates ran as high as 87 percent in rural states. In some Amazonas towns, nearly everyone who voted rejected the ban. Walking with his 20-gauge shotgun down a dirt road near the community of Maria Feitoso, farmer Francisco de Melo said his weapon is a constant companion, just in case he sees boar, armadillo and other game along the road. But protecting themselves from criminals is also on people's minds, de Melo said. That was echoed by the community's leader, Valcemir Feito de Menezes, who was walking by. De Menezes said that the thieves in the Careiro Castanho robbery made their getaway into the jungles around Maria Feitoso and were still at large. "There used to be a time when we were free from the problems of the big cities," de Menezes said. "Today, there are outlaws here, and the nearest police are 25 miles away. Weapons are all we have for protection."