The loosening of firearm restrictions in Brazil is creating new channels for criminal groups to obtain weapons via legal means – a worrying trend in a country long plagued by gun violence.

Brazilian police seized multiple firearms linked to notorious drug gang the First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital – PCC) during operations in São Paulo in June, all of which had been purchased using a legal permit known as a Collector, Shooter and Hunter license (Colecionadores, Atiradores e Caçadores – CAC). The CAC license allows Brazilians to purchase a wide variety of guns if they have no criminal record, are registered with a shooting club, and can demonstrate proficiency with a firearm.

The seizures, which included a submachine gun and a semi-automatic rifle, led police to investigate whether gangs like the PCC are using straw buyers or relatives with no criminal record to purchase legal firearms using CAC permits, according to Folha de São Paulo. One prosecutor from the Brazilian Attorney General’s Office told the newspaper that state intelligence suggested PCC members had already tried to buy firearms using CACs.

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Back in January, authorities arrested an alleged straw buyer on suspicion of reselling legally purchased weapons and ammunition to multiple criminal organizations in Rio de Janeiro. Police seized over fifty weapons from the suspect’s home, including 26 high-powered rifles, all of which had been purchased for hunting or collection, O Globo reported.

The distribution of CAC licenses, administered by the Brazilian military, has ballooned under President Jair Bolsonaro, who has passed a slew of decrees rolling back restrictions on gun permit renewals. The measures have also loosened restrictions on the amount of guns and the type of firearms Brazilian citizens are allowed to own, among other regulations.

A bill backed by Bolsonaro and his congressional allies is now being debated in the Senate, with a view to enshrining these decrees in Brazilian law.

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Though the use of straw buyers to purchase guns for criminal groups is not new in Brazil, the loosening of CAC regulations has created an attractive channel for legally purchasing a broad range of firearms at lower prices than on the black market.

“Before you couldn’t have just any weapon. You couldn’t get a rifle. You couldn’t just turn up…and buy anything,” Bruno Langeani, head of the Sou da Paz Institute in Brazil, told Folha de São Paulo. “That was all removed.”

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Now, the relative ease of purchasing weapons with CAC permits appears to be feeding a stream of legal guns into the hands of criminal groups.

This includes Brazil’s armed militias – former vigilante networks that have steadily transformed into criminal groups – which previously had to rely on recruiting members of the security forces to acquire guns, according to Langeani.

Between 2019 and 2021, CAC issuances climbed by roughly 47 percent in the states of Espírito Santo and Rio de Janeiro, where Brazil’s militias are most present, according to Brasil de Fato.

“Before [the militias] had to depend on the recruitment of police, firefighters and the military to hire their members, precisely because these groups had gun permits, and could move around freely armed,” Langeani told Brasil de Fato.

He went on to highlight the risks posed through relaxed regulations allowing civilians to carry firearms. “When you give others the right to bear arms, you facilitate militia recruitment.”

Criminal groups in Brazil have long acquired guns by illegal means, notably by smuggling them in from the US or by stealing weapons from police and military stockpiles at home. Homemade and reassembled firearms provide further options for the country’s top crime rings.

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