VICOSA, BRAZIL – Here’s a thought for today: BANG! You’ve been shot. Shot through the heart. Can you imagine it?
Your body is warm as blood pours from it, but you feel so cold. There are screams. Someone tries to lift you, but all you feel is your last breath leaving like air from a punctured tire. Your eyes roll back. All goes black. And that’s it. You’re dead.
Such a waste. The bullet wasn’t even meant for you. Or maybe it was. It doesn’t really matter.
Such are the streets of Brazil, a place that gives perspective to gun problems in the Toronto and Hamilton regions.
This country of 185 million has an incredible 40,000 gun murders annually, one every 12 minutes. That rate is falling, but it’s still higher than in the United States and among the highest globally.
Teeming cities like Rio or Sao Paulo, over 16 million itself, are brutal. Guns and drugs mix. Life is cheap and death is senseless. “You hurt my feelings,” or “You’re on my turf,” and BANG! Even here in Vicosa, a university town of 70,000, just before Toronto’s Boxing Day gun shocker, a professor was shot dead as he was getting his daughter from a grad party.
I’m talking about it all with Carluci Dossantos at the Universidade Federal de Vicosa. He’s among 900 Christian university students from Brazil and beyond, attending a congress here to talk about their future careers, and how to engage and heal their society. To take part, some have travelled for days.
Nearby, one student wears a T-shirt, one of the few in English, reading, “I would die tonight for my beliefs.” In a culture of violence, the irony fits all too well. Dossantos, a Brazilian PhD student of theology at the University of Toronto, tells me about Brazil’s slums, its poor infrastructure and its need of public programs. He’s amazed at the free activities that his kids can access in their Toronto public schools. In Brazil, that’s only for the rich.
Just 16 per cent of Brazilians now graduate from high school, and 7 per cent from university. Experts say besides death itself, youth here fear being disconnected in a techno-age, and being left behind in a competitive market.
What strikes me about Dossantos is his observation that many youth in the Millennial Generation, whether Brazilian or Canadian, simply crave love, something no amount of legislation or public campaigns can give.
“The government and community can expose the horror of guns, like it does with drunk driving. An agency can take a kid from a bad home. But it can’t love them. It can’t make a family love a kid,” Dossantos says. “But we can love them.”
Guns and broken homes are core issues that are too often minimized, he says. Fatherless boys, orphaned in spirit, are ripe for the street. Listening, one also realizes there are people in faith communities willing to live for their beliefs, not only, as the nearby T-shirt says, to die for them. And while it may irritate secular sensibilities, their expertise and involvement should be in the mix.
The so-called Boston Miracle, which saw Boston’s murders plunge by 75 per cent in the 1990s when pastors initiated street programs with police and politicians, is a success some Torontonians are now arguing against. Why?
Of course gun owners — in Brazil, they’re officially 3.5 per cent of households — have beliefs of their own. In fact, thanks to the gun lobby and its clever lawyers, a recent national referendum supported continued sales of guns countrywide.
Brazilians wanted protection against the hoods, and they didn’t want to relinquish their rights. They also took the opportunity to thumb the government, a lesson, maybe, regarding similar gun ban ideas in Canada.
So, back to BANG! You’ve been shot. Shot through your heart. Can you really imagine it? No, most Canadians, even now, can’t. It’s too far removed from our collective experience. For this we can be thankful. But if we want to keep it that way, we absolutely will need to pull together.
Because with easy guns in hand, the Grim Reaper doesn’t really care where he is. Or who’s next.