In 2003, Brazil’s Senate passed a Disarmament Statute in response to spiking murder rates that is still in place today. The statute created a number of laws pertaining to gun ownership, including clauses that call for people interested in applying for a gun to be at least 25 years old, to be free of any criminal history, to have proof that they have a steady job and fixed residence, and to pass a psychological test and pass gun training courses. If an applicant meets all of these standards, they must then choose from one of two reasons that they want a gun: self-defense or sporting. If the gun is intended to be owned for self-defense, an applicant must formally declare why they need a gun and have the argument approved by the police (Darlington 2018).
The Disarmament Statute was seen as a necessary response to Brazil’s position on the list of world’s highest murder rates. At first, it seemed to be a huge success; the country’s murder rate plunged eight percent, and about 500,000 guns were taken by the police under a buy-back scheme (BBC News 2018).
However, soon after its introduction, the statute’s effectiveness began to wane, with the number of homicides rising to its current figure of 63,880 homicides last year, or, 175 murders each day. This represents a 2.9 percent increase just from the previous year (BBC News 2018).
For many, the real question is why this rate keeps jumping even with strict gun laws in place. Some considerations look to Brazil’s increased participation in the international cocaine trade and a lack of police resources. Others have blamed mismanagement and resources in impoverished areas in the north-east of Brazil. In Rio Grande do Norte alone, the murder rate grew by 250 percent in the past decade. There has also been an increase in deaths caused by police, amounting to a total of 5,144 killings in 2017 (BBC News 2018).
This particular train of thought is played out in Rio de Janeiro, where Justice Minister Torquato Jardim stated that “Police commanders are partners in organized crime.” In 2015, the state’s authorities tied weapons seized at crime scenes to multiple security firms that were owned by active police officers (Margolis 2018).
It seems, though, that the problem is more economic than anything else; the homicide rate has been drastically reduced in Sao Paulo, where police are regularly paid on time, public finances are well-organized and recorded, and governing strategies have “remained consistent for the past two decades.” This situation is flipped in neighboring Rio de Janeiro, where police wages are often cut, state finances are often mismanaged and siphoned off by the upper class, and public services are frequently gutted (Margolis 2018).
Enter Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s recently elected president.
The far-right leader, who is a public fan of America’s National Rifle Association, largely won his campaign thanks to various promises to reform security. He is now making moves to lift the Disarmament Statute, saying that “Every honest citizen, man or woman, if they want to have a weapon in their homes - depending on certain criteria - should be able to have one.” That criteria is a swift departure from Brazil’s current gun control laws, as Bolsonaro’s only requirement for gun ownership is a clean criminal record (BBC News 2018).
A number of Brazilians have responded to the news with celebration, signing up for courses at shooting ranges and placing their names on waiting lists with suppliers in the event that Bolsonaro’s decree passes - a likely event, given that the president has the support of Congress. Brazilian gun maker Taurus Armas SA saw shares climb by 88 percent following the news, according to a Reuters report (BBC News 2018).
Others, though, are not convinced. Daniel Cerqueira, an expert on criminal violence at Brazil’s Institute for Applied Economic Research, told Bloomberg that “More arms in circulation mean more gun crimes,” explaining that for each percentage point increase of guns in circulation there is a two percent increase in homicides (Margolis 2018).
On the other hand, some experts are predicting that the Disarmament Statute or Bolsonaro’s approach are altogether futile.
Statistics from various police stations across the country have reported that authorities are increasingly coming across U.S.-made guns - the majority assault-style rifles like AR-10s, AR-15s, or AK-47s - or high-caliber handguns that are not manufactured or easily found to purchase in Brazil. A report from Brazil’s Federal Police stated that “The U.S. continues to be the largest indirect source of illegal handguns and assault rifles,” although there were also eight additional countries considered to be significant sources of weapons (Waldron 2018).
While experts say that American rifles are not flooding the Brazilian market as they have in Mexico and other countries, they are very popular amongst drug traffickers and gang members. In the last three years, Brazil’s Federal Police reported that they seized over 1,500 American-made guns from such groups, and this, of course, only reflects a portion of arms that are available in the illicit market (Waldron 2018).
Whether or not foreign guns are manufactured in the U.S. or in Europe, the Federal Police added that “Almost all of the shipments of foreign weapons arriving in Brazil leave the United States.” Often, they follow international drug smuggling routes, filtering down to Brazil. The result: Brazilian police officers have routinely claimed since the 1980s that they are outgunned in standoffs with traffickers (Waldron 2018).
However, without action from the United States, it may be an uphill battle for Brazilian officials to crack down on illegal weapons. The U.S. has yet to ratify the Inter-American Convention Against the Illicit Manufacturing of and Trafficking in Firearms, Ammunition, Explosives and Other Related Materials (CIFTA), which “would require increased criminal penalties on illegal manufacturing and trafficking of firearms and, in theory, allow countries in the Americas to share more information and increase cooperation on cross-border efforts to reduce gun crimes.” The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) also closed its only international bureau in South America located in Bogota, Colombia, leaving the region without support (Waldron 2018).
BBC News. 2018. “Brazil gun laws: Bolsonaro vows to loosen ownership rules.” 29 December. BBC News Latin America. Available to read here: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-46710862 [Accessed 31 December 2018].
Darlington, Shasta. 2018. “Brazil’s New Leader Wants to Ease Gun Laws. Supporters Are Ready, and Training.” 1 December. The New York Times. Available to read here: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/01/world/americas/brazil-gun-laws-rights-bolsonaro.html [Accessed 31 December 2018].
Margolis, Mac. 2018. “Why Brazil’s Strict Gun Laws Have Misfired.” 9 March. Bloomberg. Available to read here: https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2018-03-09/brazil-s-strict-gun-laws-haven-t-stopped-its-killers [Accessed 31 December 2018].
Waldron, Travis. 2018. “How Brazil’s ‘Lord of Guns’ Armed Rio’s Drug War With U.S. Weapons.” 8 March. Huffpost. Available to read here: https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/weapon-smuggling-us-brazil_us_5aa053d8e4b0d4f5b66d14e8 [Accessed 31 December 2018].