RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil (AP) – Just two months ago, Brazilians seemed certain to approve a proposal to ban the sale firearms across the nation.

But after both sides were granted time to present their cases on prime-time television, the pro-gun lobby began to gain force, using tactics critics say it borrowed from the National Rifle Association in the United States and playing on fears among Brazilians that police cannot protect them.

The ‘no’ side against gun controls scored a stunning victory in Sunday’s national referendum.

With votes from more than 92 percent of the votes counted, 64 percent opposed the ban and 36 percent supported it, election officials said. President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva had favored the ban, aimed at stemming one of the world’s highest gun murder rates.

“They didn’t vote in favor of guns, they voted to protest the government and the lack of a national security policy,” said Antonio Rangel, coordinator of the gun control campaign at the Viva Rio think tank. “Two months ago we had 81 percent support for the ban, this shows that less than 20 percent of the population really believes in guns. The rest was protest.”

Brazil has 100 million fewer citizens than the United States, but a staggering 25 percent more gun deaths – 40,000 a year. While both sides of the debate agree violence is high, opponents of the gun ban gained support in recent weeks by playing on Brazilians’ fears that police can’t protect them.

“I’m don’t like people walking around armed on the street. But since all the bandits have guns, you need to have a gun at home,” said taxi driver Mohammed Osei, who voted against the ban.

The combination of Brazil’s high gun-death rate and the nature of the debate over the right to gun ownership has drawn parallels to the gun debate in the United States.

“Their whole campaign (against the ban) was imported from the United States. They just translated a lot of material from the NRA,” said Jessica Galeria, an American who researches gun violence with the Viva Rio think tank.

National Rifle Association public affairs director Andrew Arulanandam called the proposal’s defeat “a victory for freedom.”

“It’s a stunning defeat for the global gun control movement. They poured millions of dollars and millions more man hours trying to enact this gun ban and they failed. The aim of this gun ban movement was to use Brazil as the rallying point to enact gun bans in the United States. We’re happy they were defeated,” he said.

But Rangel said there are few similarities between the situation in Brazil and in the U.S.

“I think the reality is very different in the U.S. where there is a tradition of glorifying guns. That doesn’t exist here,” said Rangel. “The majority of people don’t have guns and don’t like guns. But what we have is a failed public security system and a police force that is highly contaminated by drug trafficking. People here don’t trust the police.”

More than 120 million Brazilians cast ballots in Sunday’s voting. Voting is mandatory between 18 and 70, but Brazilians as young as 16 can vote.

President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva voted early in a public school in suburban Sao Paulo. He told reporters he voted in favor of the ban.

If the referendum had passed, the sale of firearms and ammunition would have been prohibited except for police, the military, some security guards, gun collectors and sports shooters. It would complement a 2003 disarmament law that sharply restricts who can legally purchase firearms and carry guns in the street.

That law, coupled with a government-sponsored gun buyback program, has reduced deaths from firearms by about 8 percent this year, the Health Ministry said.

Some Brazilians said they resented the referendum because they feel the government is ducking its responsibility to keep the peace.

“It’s immoral for the government to have this vote,” said Pedro Ricardo, an army officer in Sao Paulo. “They’re putting the responsibility on us, but … the way to cut down on violence is to combat the drug trade and patrol our borders.”

Supporters maintained a gun ban was the only way to make Brazil safer.

“We have to do something about the violence in this country,” said Paulo Leite, an engineer from the upscale Ipanema beach district.

About 39,000 people in Brazil are killed by guns each year, compared to about 30,000 people in the United States, although the U.S. has a bigger population, according to the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

According to UNESCO, Brazil ranks second in deaths by guns, with 21.72 per 100,000 people a year. Venezuela has 34.3 gun deaths per 100,000.

But in shantytowns like Vila do Joao, the rate rises to around 150 per 100,000. And for males between 17 and 24, the death rate is closer to 250 per 100,000.

Associated Press Writer Michael Astor contributed to this report.

AP-ES-10-23-05 2007EDT

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