Stray Bullets Are No Accident

02/02/2015 08:30 am ET | Updated Apr 04, 2015

Thirty-two bullets. That's all it took to shatter the lives of just as many innocent men, women and children in metropolitan Rio de Janeiro last month. It is an unspeakable tragedy. The victims consist of toddlers and senior citizens -- all of them going about their own business. Most of them are residents of low-income neighborhoods, especially the city's sprawling north zone.

The blame game is in full swing. The state's Secretary for Public Security has condemned drug trafficking groups, alluding to a "nation of criminals" with brazen disregard for human life. Meanwhile, human rights activists say that the military police are also to blame. Caught in the crossfire, locals are throwing up their hands in resignation. Yet there is nothing accidental about these incidents -- they are indicative of a failure of public policy.

The January shooting spree is just the tip of the iceberg. Consider the statistics. According to public data, there were 61 victims of "stray bullets" in Rio de Janeiro in the first six months of 2012, the last year for which official information is available. This compares to 88 in 2011, 139 in 2010, 193 in 2009 and 236 in 2008. Since the government does not collect data on a regular basis, it is impossible to tell which direction the trend is moving.

A closer inspection of these incidents reveals that most shooting incidents occur in the poorest parts of Rio de Janeiro. A small proportion of them -- less than 5 percent -- result in fatalities while the rest generate terrible physical and psychological scars. Yet these cold statistics conceal the reign of terror generated by shoot-outs. Citizens are no longer able to move about for fear of falling victim. School absenteeism in dangerous neighborhoods is increasing and locals are reluctant to make the perilous journey to work.

Brazilians are not the only ones gunned down by stray bullets. While surely an under-estimate, the United Nations recorded 617 victims of stray bullets in 27 Latin American and Caribbean countries between 2009 and 2013. About 47 per cent of them died of their gunshot wounds. Half of the victims were male while the rest were women and girls -- most of them under 18. Although gangs played a role, police were involved in a disturbingly high proportion of reported cases.

Stray bullets can be prevented. To do so requires national, state- and metropolitan-level strategies that prioritize violence reduction, especially in poor and unstable neighborhoods. This should not translate into more forceful police operations. Instead, interventions should focus purposefully on hot spots, support at-risk youth, and guarantee the protection of civilians. These measures must also be pursued alongside targeted efforts to regulate illegal firearms and ammunition and destroy surplus to prevent leakage into criminal networks.

Brazil's current approach to dealing with stray bullets borders on negligence. Supposedly random shootings are treated as collateral damage -- an unavoidable outcome of a tough on crime approach. If this gun-violence epidemic is to be reversed, urgent steps must be taken. This includes enforcing a coherent doctrine regarding the proportional use of force by the military police. It also means rethinking the wisdom of arming police with high-caliber military-style weapons with a range of 2-3 kilometers. And rather than reducing the state´s spending on public security -- as is currently anticipated in the 2015 budget -- Rio's politicians need to dramatically increase it, alongside social and economic investments in making the city safer.