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Chile faces a domestic arms race with rise in gun ownership

SANTIAGO, Chile, April 13 (UPI) -- Chile is facing a domestic arms race with the rise in firearms acquisitions by the country's wealthy elite classes, national statical data showed.

The upsurge in large-scale purchases of firearms by high net worth households contrasted with an overall decrease in the number of gun owners from 5.3 percent to 4.9 percent, the National Institute of Statistics said in its seventh National Urban Citizen Security Study.

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Crime is a major problem in some of the congested urban areas of Chile with huge income disparities, but is generally considered to be less of a threat to individuals and the corporate sector than in other Latin American countries.

Chilean President Sebastian Pinera vowed to reduce income gaps when he took office last year but faced challenges after an 8.8-magnitude earthquake and aftershocks in February 2010 caused huge destruction. Reconstruction after the quake claimed financial resources originally meant for economic development.

Chile was struck by further earthquakes and aftershocks in March this year.

Economic changes and urban insecurity are seen behind the rise in firearms purchases, though this is contested by officials.

Between 2009 and 2010 the number of wealthy Chileans owning guns rose from 9.5 percent to 13.8 percent, said the study.

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Around 36.5 percent of Chile's upper class gun owners justified their purchases as necessary for protecting their families and households from criminal elements, MercoPress reported.

The government rejected any link between rising gun ownership and the security situation in Chile.

Deputy Director of Public Security Catalina Mertz said the statistics could be misleading and wrong, with a substantial margin of error. She said the rise in gun ownership among the wealthy had little to do with a heightened sense of insecurity and the need to protect one's home, the Santiago Times reported.

"If there has been an increase, then we have to look at what is motivating people to buy firearms, and there we can see a decrease in the percentage of people who say they bought their weapon to prevent or protect themselves from delinquents," Mertz said.

Security expert Lucia Dammert told La Tercera newspaper it would be important to establish "whether the heightened sales of guns are linked to protecting oneself or whether it is just people exercising their right to bear arms, which they were not able to do before."

She said the linkage between gun ownership and statistics for crime had to be treated with care. "If delinquency continues to drop we enter into a dangerous area where people will believe the drop is due to an increase in the acquisition of firearms," Dammert warned.

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