SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

April 9, 2011

Brazil buries schoolchildren, debates gun laws

MARCO SIBAJA
Associated Press

RIO DE JANEIRO — Grief-stricken relatives threw themselves upon caskets and wept to exhaustion as Rio buried most of the 12 children killed in a school shooting. The massacre shocked Brazilians — and stoked new calls for stricter guns laws.

Sobbing and embracing family members as she watched the body of her 14-year-old niece Milena Santos Nascimento placed into a tomb, Ana Rosa Nascimento Alves could barely shake off the shock to describe her pain.

"Milena was a dreamer," she said. "Unfortunately, this madman came and ended her dreams."

It was the sentiment of a nation that watched repeated funerals Friday, services attended by upward of a thousand people each.

A day earlier, 10 girls and two boys aged from 12 to 15 were gunned down inside the Tasso da Silveira public school, most lined up along a wall and shot in the head at point-blank range. The shooter, identified as 23-year-old Wellington Oliveira, killed himself with one of his pistols after being confronted by police. At least 12 other students were injured, two of them reported in grave condition.

A few details began to emerge about Oliveira: He was a good student with a history of psychological problems who attended the Tasso school; he was fascinated with the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the U.S.; he spent a lot of time on his computer watching videos on how to fire weapons. Still, those who knew him said he did not seem the type to carry out such violence.

Investigators said that they recovered at least 60 shell casings from the school and that most of those were shot by Oliveira, who witnesses said was firing both of the revolvers he was carrying.

Police said one of the guns used was reported stolen in 1994. The origin of the other was not yet known because the serial number had been filed off. It was not clear how or when Oliveira obtained the weapons. Police found Oliveira's home in disarray — he had burned his computer, apparently in an effort to thwart an investigation.

The motive remained unknown, and investigators said it might never be discovered.

Oliveira was one of six children, a man who identified himself as one of the siblings told the Globo television network. The brother said Oliveira was adopted as a baby and had long suffered psychological problems, but he did not elaborate.

Oliveira was fascinated with guns, and was "very impressed" with the 9/11 attacks in the U.S., the brother added.

"He said, for example, that he had 'a lot of desire to destroy an airplane, like that guy did in the United States,'" said the brother, whose face was disguised at his request because he feared reprisals.

Oliveira attended the Tasso school from 1999 until 2002. He was considered a good student who didn't get into trouble, but who was estranged from the world around him.

Vanessa Nascimento, a neighbor of Oliveira, said he was "always very calm and closed."

"He wasn't one to make friends. But no one ever suspected he was capable of doing what he did," she said.

Reacting to the attack, congressmen began calling for even greater control over the sale of guns and ammunition in Brazil.

"There are mental health issues related to this tragedy, but it is also clear that if the access to weapons and ammunition were not so easy, the result would have been different," Congressman Alessandro Molon said after visiting the Tasso school.

Brazil already has strict gun laws.

A 2003 law sharply limited who could legally purchase firearms and carry guns on the street. Anyone wanting to buy a gun must be at least 25, pass a psychological test, prove they need the weapon, have no criminal record, and provide proof that they attended courses on handling guns.

However, Brazil's porous and long borders allow for illegal arms to easily flow in. Many firearms are in the hands of powerful drug gangs that control sprawling slums in cities across the country. Antigun groups estimate there are 16 million guns in Brazil — half of them illegal.

Antigun activists pushed hard for adoption of a measure in 2005 that would have banned the sale of all arms and ammunition except to police, the military, some security guards, gun collectors and sports shooters. Voters in a national referendum rejected the proposal.

Antonio Rangel Bandeira of Viva Rio, an organization that aims to rid Rio de Janeiro of arms, told the newspaper O Globo that Brazil already has good laws on controlling the sale of weapons and ammunition, but he said enforcement is poor.

"People wanting to buy a weapon must comply with 15 requisites but gun shop owners ignore them. Today anyone wanting to buy a gun can do so," he said.

Justice Minister Jose Eduardo Cardozo said the government plans to adopt measures to disarm the population, though he did not provide details on what that plan might be.

Senate President Jose Sarney said the country must draw up tougher "zero tolerance" arms control legislation. He said Congress must do its part to restrict as much as possible the ability of people like Oliveira from getting access to weapons.

Before the school attack, 11 bills were pending in Congress to weaken the current gun-control laws, including allowing the sale of weapons to off-duty prison guards, unarmed municipal guards who patrol parks, beaches and landmarks, and unarmed traffic guards. The chances of those bills becoming law now seem slim in light of the anger over the massacre.

With feeling running high, few people who support any loosening of controls were available for comment.

Diogenes Dantas, an adviser to the prosecutor's office for the military justice system, told O Globo that he supported reforming Brazil's gun laws so that people like prison guards and traffic police could carry arms while off duty to guarantee their own safety "and that of others."

Other officials, however, rejected any relaxation of the laws.

"The more weapons allowed to circulate, the more weapons will wind up in the wrong hands," said Jose Vicente da Silva, Brazil's former public safety secretary. "There must be restrictions, because most weapons now in the hands of criminals were once legal and became illegal when stolen."

Guaracy Mingardi, a security expert at the University of Sao Paulo, said the only way to prevent killings like the one in Rio is to "clamp down on the access to weapons."

"We cannot put policemen on every street corner, or armed guards inside every school," he said. "Things like metal detectors or security cameras are not difficult to bypass by someone who wants to get a weapon inside the school. They will always find a way."

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Associated Press writers Bradley Brooks and Stan Lehman in Sao Paulo contributed to this report.