Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro has signed a decree relaxing gun ownership laws, raising fears that it will worsen violence in the country. The new measure officially aims to help citizens defend themselves, but it will likely lead to more firearms falling into the hands of criminal organizations.
The decree, signed on May 7, removes bans on importing certain firearms, raises the amount of ammunition that can be purchased per year and eliminates the need to register each individual firearm.
Shortly after taking office in January, Bolsonaro, who campaigned on a law and order platform, already signed a pro-gun law.
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Groups such as the Brazilian Forum for Public Safety (Fórum Brasileiro de Segurança Pública) argue that the decree ignores evidence demonstrating that more firearms do not lead to reduced violence. The organization also questions Bolsonaro’s motivations, writing that this decree helps bolster support among his supporters but does little to improve public safety.
The majority of small arms produced in Brazil are exported out of the country, according to Small Arms Survey. Many of these weapons are then illegally smuggled back into the country via land borders. These domestically produced weapons are the ones most frequently used during violent crimes but the most powerful weapons possessed by organized crime groups are of foreign origin.
The United States was the largest foreign supplier of illegal weapons to Brazil, mainly high-caliber handguns and assault rifles, according to a 2017 study from Brazil's Federal Police quoted by Reuters. It adds that lax US gun laws have allowed for Brazilian citizens to legally buy firearms and then transfer them to criminals in what are called “straw purchases.”
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Bolsonaro's moves to free up Brazil's gun market play well with his national security supporters but the impact risks being starkly different. Removing the requirement to individually register each firearm makes it likely that gangs will simply buy guns at home through "straw purchases" instead of importing them from abroad.
This would be a new challenge for gun control in a country where regulations to own a firearm have traditionally been strict.
Applications to own guns were already increasing prior to this decree and should be expected to continue to rise. In the past five years, gun license applications rose 879 percent, according to a report from Soudapaz. Concerns over legally registered weapons being acquired by criminals contributed to this rise and legal gun owners have voiced fears of being targeted for robbery by gangs.
These new rules could also exacerbate the problem of criminal groups obtaining weapons from the police. Back in June 2017, 95 arrest warrants were issued for police officers in Rio de Janeiro accused of selling weapons and providing information to drug gangs.
The troubling connection between police officers and criminals only becomes more worrying when discussing the rise of Rio de Janeiro’s militias. In March, a police officer and militia member suspected of having murdered councilwoman Marielle Franco was found to be in possession of 117 brand new M-16 rifles.