Bolsonaro’s policy could lead to more guns ending up in criminals’ hands

São Paulo Letter: Is Brazil’s president concerned with protection or political leverage?

President Bolsonaro (centre) would often make pistol-like hand gestures on the campaign trail, promising that, if elected, he would make it easier to buy firearms in Brazil. File photograph: Andre Borges/NurPhoto via Getty

President Bolsonaro (centre) would often make pistol-like hand gestures on the campaign trail, promising that, if elected, he would make it easier to buy firearms in Brazil. File photograph: Andre Borges/NurPhoto via Getty

 

Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro never hid the fact he has a thing for guns. On the campaign trail in 2018, he would often make pistol-like hand gestures, promising that, if elected, he would make it much easier to buy firearms in what is already one of the world’s most violent societies.

Many other key pledges he made as a candidate have since been ditched. But on guns he is delivering with a zeal perhaps only matched by his determination to protect his family’s shady rackets from prying investigators.

Bolsonaro had barely gotten his feet under the presidential desk in January 2019, when he took his first step towards liberalising Brazil’s strict gun controls. Since then there have been more than 30 presidential-ordered changes to the regulations that oversee gun ownership, all designed to chip away at the 2003 Disarmament Statute so as to allow easier access to more and more powerful weapons, while diluting the state’s ability to track them.

[It] is increasing the number of weapons in circulation and in Brazil we know that many of the guns that sustain crime are guns that were once legal

The result of this regulatory rollback has been an unprecedented jump in the number of firearms held by Brazilian citizens. Just before Bolsonaro was sworn in there were 697,000 legally registered guns. Just two years later the number is heading towards 1.2 million and the presidential decrees, aiming to make them ever easier to obtain, keep on coming.

Homicide rate

His supporters, led by his third son Eduardo Bolsonaro, the frequently gun-carrying federal deputy, claim the rise in gun ownership explains a drop in Brazil’s homicide rate. For the Bolsonaros, an armed population is a safe one.

But public security experts say the recent drop in the homicide rate after several years of explosive growth is likely due to several complex, interlocking factors and cannot be explained simply by the growth in numbers of people with weapons.

Anyway, the fall in homicides registered in 2018 and 2019 went into reverse last year. Just as gun ownership soared, 2020 saw a five per cent increase in the homicide rate as 43,892 violent deaths were recorded.

Unlike Bolsonaristas, the experts who study Brazil’s deep-seated problems with violence are not given to politically convenient snap judgements, and so are not ready to blame this rise on the president’s gun policy. But they are clear on where they believe it is leading the country.

“[It] is increasing the number of weapons in circulation and in Brazil we know that many of the guns that sustain crime are guns that were once legal. They are coveted by criminals who buy and steal them,” says Carolina Ricardo, director of Sou da Paz (I’m For Peace), an institute in São Paulo that works on violence-prevention public policies.

Therefore, an armed population could yet see many of the guns it buys for protection end up in the hands of the criminals it wants protection from, as happened to Bolsonaro when he had his Glock pistol taken from him by the thieves who stole his motorbike in Rio in 1995.

Protecting the population

But not everyone is convinced the president is concerned with protecting the population from rampant crime so much as gaining political leverage by getting guns into the hands of his supporters.

In a cabinet meeting last year, he linked his gun policy to empowering citizens to stand up to court-endorsed lockdown measures taken by mayors to contain the spread of the coronavirus, measures he viewed as being designed to undermine him politically.

The Bolsonaros are avid consumers of US alt-right ideology and regurgitate its claims about an armed citizenry being needed to defend liberty – an idea that has no roots in Brazilian history. Bolsonaro’s consistency in his efforts to arm “everyone” has been matched by his attacks on Brazil’s widely respected electronic voting system, claiming he was the victim of fraud even after he won the presidential election in 2018.

Now after January’s attack on the US Capitol by, among others, armed militia members disputing a clean election, questions about Bolsonaro’s gun policy have become even more urgent. As former defence minister Raul Jungmann wrote in a letter to the supreme court demanding action: “It is undeniable the affirmation that the arming of the citizenry for ‘the defence of liberty’ evokes the terrible scourge of civil war.”

Strong language, but then Bolsonaro is on the record as saying Brazil will only change when civil war breaks out.

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