On January 15, Jair Bolsonaro, the newly-elected, ultra-conservative president of Brazil, proposed a law making it easier for Brazilians to buy guns. This law comes on the heels of an increase in Brazil’s homicide rate, which, in 2017, was 30.8 people for every one hundred thousand—quadruple the United States’ rate of five per one hundred thousand people in 2015. This amounts to about 175 deaths per day, and 63,880 people a year. In the face of these alarming statistics, Bolsonaro has pledged to loosen gun-control laws in order to reduce violence by “guarantee[ing] citizens their legitimate right to defense.”
While the decree has the approval of Bolsonaro’s supporters, many of whom feel that access to a weapon of self-defense may be the only way to guarantee protection within their homes, it has received significant criticism from public security experts and news outlets who believe that an increase in guns will result in an increase in homicides. Instead, Brazil should focus on enforcing existing gun legislation and curbing illegal arms trafficking.
A History of Brazilian Gun Control
Bolsonaro is not the first president of Brazil to attempt to curb the country’s notoriously high homicide rates. In 2003, Brazil’s former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva attempted to crack down on gun violence as well. However, his approach was to enact gun restrictions as opposed to enabling self-defense. His 2003 Disarmament Statute mandated background checks for gun purchases, made it illegal for ordinary citizens to carry firearms, raised the minimum age from twenty-one to twenty-five to purchase a gun, and instituted specific requirements to renew gun licenses.
The statute did not have nearly as much of an effect as da Silva had intended, largely because Brazilian government officials did not effectively enforce the reforms. The illegal sale of weapons continued, and of the 119,484 firearms seized in 2017, 94.9 percent had never been registered in the Federal Police system upon being purchased. This goes to show the extent of the illegal sale and ownership of weapons in Brazil; there were estimated to be between 3,800,000 to 9,499,847 unregistered and illicit firearms in 2018. Furthermore, arms trafficking and cross-border crime cartels leave no shortage of weapons on the black market; if someone wants a gun to commit a crime, they will likely have no problem getting one.
In response to high homicide rates and a growing concern among citizens for their safety, Bolsonaro aims to decrease fear by supporting a citizen’s right to self defense inside their homes. Brazilian citizens still cannot carry guns in public, but his decree opens up gun ownership to citizens living in rural areas and in urban areas with high homicide rates. It also increases gun licences’ validity from five years to ten, increases the number of guns a person can own from two to four, and removes the requirement that police determine whether a citizen can own a gun—currently, citizens have to justify their need for a gun in an interview with a federal police official.
In addition to loosening da Silva’s restrictive gun laws, Bolsonaro has also stated that he wants to “give the police a carte blanche to kill.” Many have criticized this decision, considering that police in Brazil already have a high murder rate—5,144 people in 2017 alone, compared to 458 deaths from police shootings in the United States that year—and have received criticism for their use of unchecked violence, especially against young, black males.
Bolsonaro’s decree should come as no surprise. Before running for president, he was a leader of the bacada da bala, a group of anti-gun control politicians. And during his campaign, he consistently expressed that he wants to help citizens feel safer in their homes and reduce Brazil’s alarming rates of violence by making ownership of guns more feasible. His chief of staff, Onyx Lorenzoni, said in early January that “studies show that the better armed the population is the less violence there will be.”
A Second Amendment Debate?
To those of us living in America, the debate surrounding Bolsonaro’s decree should sound incredibly familiar. Bolsonaro’s tactic of expanding access to firearms in response to increasing gun violence mirrors the response of several conservative states to mass shootings in the United States. In March of 2018, a month after the Parkland shooting, Idaho and Wyoming both passed amendments expanding their “Stand Your Ground” laws, which justify the use of lethal force for self-defense. Other states loosened gun restriction by passing laws that allow people with concealed-carry licenses to bring guns onto college campuses and carry firearms without a permit.
It would be easy for those in America with more liberal views on the gun control debate to turn immediately to stricter gun control as the most obvious solution to the current situation in Brazil. However, it is worth considering why many Brazilian citizens feel that the most effective solution is to have their own form of protection within their homes.
The police force has struggled to curb violence and has been criticized for its corruption and violence; in 2017, ninety-six military police officers in Rio de Janeiro were accused of accepting money from criminals in exchange for assistance such as providing weapons and protecting drug traffickers. Brazil has had difficulty curbing the illegal sale of weapons as well, so many among his base feel that increasing self-defense is a better solution than implementing more gun restrictions that would likely continue to be ill-enforced. The promise of a physical weapon in one’s household has large appeal among his supporters and may seem like the most immediate and perhaps only way for them to feel safe in their homes.
Despite the decree’s appeal among Bolsonaro’s base, increasing civilian access to guns will likely not work in the way he intends. Many of the guns used in homicides had been stolen from police officers or law-abiding citizens, and simply increasing the number of guns in circulation will likely exacerbate the problem in the long run. A 2014 study of Sao Paulo townships found that with every percentage point in the increase of guns in circulation, there was a two percent increase in homicides.
Even though Brazil still has relatively strict gun control laws despite Bolsonaro’s decree—prospective buyers have to be twenty-five years old with no criminal record, pass a psychological exam, and take an educational course—ensuring that these laws are enforced and preventing illegal arms trafficking would require measures from Brazilian officials that are, as of now, not being taken. Federal and state level police are not yet collaborating to investigate gun-related crimes, especially along the borders where arms trafficking occurs, nor are government agencies properly registering weapons or attempting to more effectively enforce existing gun laws or curb police corruption. Bolsonaro’s current tactic may have immediate appeal among his base, but putting more guns into circulation will not deliver on his promise to strengthen law and order.
Madeleine Parrish is a Staff Writer for The Gate.