Brazil’s criminal gangs have Bolsonaro to thank for easier access to weapons

Far-right president’s lax gun laws have put more weapons in criminal hands, and even threaten democracy, say public safety experts

When it was revealed that a figure in Brazil’s criminal underworld had taken advantage of lax new gun regulations drawn up by the administration of Jair Bolsonaro to legally source an automatic rifle, the country’s public security community was not surprised. “This is the Chronicle of a Death Foretold,” says Carolina Ricardo, citing the famous novella by Gabriel García Márquez.

Brazil’s far-right president has long advocated looser restrictions on gun ownership and, during a chaotic three years in power, it is one of the few policy areas in which he has delivered. Using presidential directives to get around a reluctant congress, Bolsonaro has gutted the country’s gun control regime so that an individual — after only minimal background checks — can now buy as many as 60 weapons for personal use, including up to 30 rifles.

The result has been an explosion in the number of weapons in private hands. Last year there were 2.4 million legally registered to individuals in Brazil, an increase of 78 per cent on 2018, the year before Bolsonaro was sworn into office.

When we saw this level of access to guns opening up we knew it would turn out badly

There is mounting evidence that many of these are being passed over to criminals. Historically the majority of guns seized by police from criminals in Brazil started life as legally held weapons. But the new ease of access and resultant spike in the volume of guns now circulating has been a huge boon to the underworld, where the price of sourcing an automatic rifle has fallen from about €10,000 to as little as €2,000, analysts calculate.

“When we saw this level of access to guns opening up we knew it would turn out badly,” says Ricardo, director of Sou da Paz (I’m For Peace), an institute in São Paulo that works on violence-prevention public policies. Working with the Espírito Santo state government to improve its gun control regime, Sou da Paz gathered evidence that criminals are now paying ordinary members of the public to register for gun ownership and then passing over newly obtained weapons to crime gangs.

Gun control campaigners say this new source of weapons for criminals has been facilitated by the failure of the military, charged with overseeing private gun ownership in Brazil, to invest in new capacity to accompany the soaring demand for weapons. After it was revealed that the São Paulo criminal wanted on murder and drug trafficking charges had bought an automatic rifle, the army released a terse note saying he was legally entitled to do so based on the paperwork he had provided, but the permit would be revoked. “As it is a political project of the Bolsonaro government to facilitate the arming of the population, the military has not invested in the capacity needed to accomplish its oversight task. Its technical competence has diminished as a result of political interference by Bolsonaro,” notes Ricardo.

His discourse on weapons used to focus on legitimate defence but after 2020 there is a change and it starts to become a political question for him

The president and the country’s increasingly powerful gun lobby have been silent on the mounting evidence that his gun policy is facilitating criminals’ access to weapons. This is despite the fact they long made a citizen’s right to defend themselves against Brazil’s endemic criminality a key justification for laxer gun laws. But public security campaigners point to an important change in Bolsonaro’s rationale for weaker controls on gun ownership in recent years. “His discourse on weapons used to focus on legitimate defence but after 2020 there is a change and it starts to become a political question for him,” says Isabel Figueiredo of the Brazilian Forum on Public Safety.

As Bolsonaro escalated his attacks on opposition governors, the media and the supreme court and its judges who oversee elections, he increasingly linked his desire to arm the population to facing down his political opponents. The statement “An armed people will never be enslaved” is now a staple of presidential speeches in which he also calls into question the legitimacy of Brazil’s voting system in advance of October’s presidential election, in which every poll shows him heading for defeat.

The increase in gun ownership in states that voted for Bolsonaro in 2018 has far outstripped that in states his left-wing opponent Fernando Haddad won, fuelling fears that among the cohort of new gun owners is an extremist fringe of the president’s supporters ready to support him if, as he has hinted, he refuses to accept defeat in October. “As well as the leaking of weapons to the criminal world we also now have to worry about the risk this arming of the population poses for democracy in Brazil,” warns Figueiredo.