Two years ago, 32 women, 48 children and 172 men were killed by firearms in Costa Rica.
Those statistics glow from backlit posters on Avenida Escazú, southwest of the capital, and overlook highways in Curridabat, east of the city, emblazoned on giant billboards.
“The goal is to inform people that firearms in general have a negative effect,” said Randal Arias, director of the governance and justice program at Costa Rica’s Peace and Democracy Foundation and manager of a new campaign designed to inform citizens about gun violence. “The focus is on protecting the family.”
The awareness campaign, which launched last week, is in conjunction with new gun law reforms put on the table by President Laura Chinchilla.
“What Costa Rica wants to say is that we can we can face criminality and violence with policies of the state and with an intelligent dialogue with the community,” Chinchilla said at a press conference last week.
The reforms currently are facing a vote in the Legislative Assembly. If passed, the changes would allow only one gun per home, prohibit the carrying of a firearm in a bar or school, blacklist anyone with a history of domestic violence from owning a gun and raise the penalty for owning an illegal firearm to up to eight years in prison.
Chinchilla also announced that 3,675 firearms currently in government custody will be destroyed.
While Costa Rica has long had one of the lowest crime rates in Central America, violent crime has been on the rise. According to the Judicial Investigation Police, the use of firearms in assaults grew 59 percent between 2005 and 2011, and 42 percent in crimes in general. The use of guns in murders grew 3 percent from 2011-2012.
“These reforms are not coming from nowhere,” said Max Loría Ramírez, vice minister of peace and justice. “We have been talking about these reforms for years.”
The Costa Rican government is not the only actor seeking gun reform. A huge portion of the money for the awareness campaign came from the private sector, civil associations and the Canadian government.
“It is impossible to put an official number on it right now,” Arias said. “The private sector has put in more than $100,000, but it just keeps coming in and that is really the most beautiful thing.”
With the extra money the group is launching a social media campaign and several television spots. The messages focus on the three groups viewed as the most vulnerable to gun violence: children (due to gun accidents), women (domestic violence) and young men (delinquency and gangs).
“This campaign was launched in the context of new reforms, but it takes more preventative action,” Arias said. “The proposed laws want to control people’s actions through obligation, but the campaign is meant to appeal to people’s morals and conscience.”
The reform bill is in a legislative commission, and Loría believes it will pass quickly through the assembly.
“We are very optimistic that these changes will have a real effect on crime,” he said.