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Trading pistols for pedals in Uruguay

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BUENOS AIRES -- An upcoming firearms law in Uruguay will let gun owners trade their weapons for laptops and bikes. Will that be enough to lower the country's rising murder rate?

BUENOS AIRES -- Walking along the riverfront boardwalk in Uruguay's sleepy capital city of Montevideo, it's hard to imagine anything drastic happening, much less a murder. Save for the occasional jogger, the majority of people on the rambla engage in the most Uruguayan of activities: sitting and chatting while drinking the herbal infusion mate from a calabash gourd. It is tranquilo by any definition.

But Uruguay has been experiencing a murder wave of sorts. In this country of some 3.4 million people, there were 267 murders in 2012, up 34 percent from 2011, and 70 percent of them were committed with firearms. While this murder rate is low compared to Chicago -- where the per capita figure is about twice as high -- it caused great alarm in the South American nation.

And so, just as the U.S. is recovering from the Newtown, Conn. mass killing and wrestling with how to quell epidemic gun violence, tiny Uruguay is putting into place a gun control program that could serve as a blueprint for American efforts. By the end of March, the government of President José "Pepe" Mujica plans to launch an innovative two-pronged program that will combine the stick of criminal penalties for gun owners who don't abide by a new gun control law with the carrot of free gear for those who turn in their weapons.

The first prong is a "Responsible Gun Possession" law, currently under consideration by congress, under which residents will have six months after passage to register their guns. Those who fail to comply will face criminal penalties, including possible jail time. The second prong is a gun trade-in program called "Arms for Life" (Armas para la vida), in which people who turn in a gun -- in any condition -- will receive their choice of a bicycle or a laptop/tablet computer.

The Arms for Life part of the Uruguayan program is innovative, but it is not unique. In recent years, Canadian cities from Toronto to Winnipeg have run "Pixels for Pistols" programs that offer digital cameras for firearms. According to David Hemenway, director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center at the Harvard School of Public Health, it's hard to judge the success of such programs because typical voluntary buyback or trade-in schemes bring in too few guns to be statistically relevant. That said, he adds, Uruguay's combination of a gun trade-in program with an obligatory registration law (with criminal penalties) makes it very interesting.

Marcelo Barzelli, the Interior Ministry communications director who is heading the Arms for Life trade-in effort, describes the Uruguayan program as a way to make the country safer by radically lowering the number of arms available. Uruguay is awash in guns, in part because it was run by a well-armed military dictatorship from 1973-1985, and in part because over the years residents have bought plentiful and cheap black market weapons for protection, hunting and other reasons. The non-profit group GunPolicy.org pegs the combined number of registered and unregistered guns in Uruguay at around 1.1 million, which would make the country one of the most armed per capita in the world. (Barzelli notes that many of the 600,000 weapons in the gun registration database run by the Uruguayan Defense Ministry have been on the list for decades and may no longer exist.)

The registration law is directed at getting an accurate census of those who use guns at work or have guns at home for protection, Barzelli says, while the trade-in program is aimed at the large mass of Uruguayan gun owners -- some 90 percent, Barzelli estimates -- who came into their guns either by inheritance or a regretted purchase and no longer want them around.

"The most common anecdote you hear is, 'In that closet, behind the clothes, in that dark corner, there’s a gun.' And they’ve had it for 20 years. They worry that their kids will find it, they don’t know how to use it, they don’t know what to do," he says.

According to Barzelli, the Arms for Life program offers a bike or computer instead of cash for both philosophical reasons and financial incentive.

"The main reason was to create a symbolic transaction, so the people are conscious that a computer or bicycle is much more useful to their life than a firearm. That's why it's called Arms for Life," says Barzelli. "The second reason is that in Uruguay the guns on the illegal market are very inexpensive, much less than in a legal shop. A .32 calibre revolver in good condition can be bought for 500 Uruguayan pesos, maybe $30. So if you were to pay a person what the arm is valued on the illegal market, it would be a very unattractive offer."

Because the exact number of guns in Uruguay is unknown, the program doesn't have an exact budget, Barzelli says; each bicycle or laptop costs some $200.

Even before its launch, news of the upcoming Arms for Life program has brought in a flurry of calls from Uruguayans who want to participate, Barzelli says, suggesting a high level of interest. Still, it's unclear whether getting these guns off the street will lower the murder rate, says Harvard's Hemenway, as buyback and trade-in programs tend to bring in the guns used in suicides and accidents more than the type used in street crime.

For an example of a truly successful gun buyback program, Hemenway points to Australia's program. Put into place after a 35-victim gun massacre in Tasmania, the 1996 Australian program banned semiautomatic and automatic rifles and shotguns and instituted a mandatory buyback program for these weapons. In 2002, other laws cracked down on gun trafficking, restricted the kinds of handguns that were legal, and set up a handgun buyback scheme. There hasn't been a mass shooting in Australia since, Hemenway says, and firearm deaths have dropped precipitously.

"Right when the buyback occurred, in a two-year period, firearm homicide and suicide dropped by about 40 percent," he says. "It's always hard to say cause-and-effect, but this is the very best possible thing that could have happened."

Uruguay will have to wait and see if its own program has a similarly positive effect. In the short term, at least, the surrendered guns will go to good use. Firearms from the program will be melted and turned into building steel, Barzelli says, to be used in the country's Plan Juntos, which builds housing for the poor.

Photo from Jimmy Baikovicius/Flickr

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Ian Mount

Correspondent (Buenos Aires)

Ian Mount is a freelance writer based in Buenos Aires, Argentina. He has written for the New York Times, New York, Slate, Monocle, the Telegraph (UK) and Food & Wine. He has also produced pieces for public radio shows such as The World and Marketplace, and is the author of The Vineyard at the End of the World: Maverick Winemakers and the Rebirth of Malbec (W.W. Norton, 2012). Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure