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Brazil's firearm ownership booms, and gun laws loosen, under President Bolsonaro

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has issued more than a dozen decrees in favor of Brazilians' right to bear arms. Sales have spiked and gun shops and shooting ranges have opened up all over Brazil.

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A visitor holds a weapon during the Shot Fair Brasil, an arms exhibition held at the Expoville Conventions and Exhibitions Center in Joinville, Santa Catarina state, Brazil, on Aug. 5.
A visitor holds a weapon during the Shot Fair Brasil, an arms exhibition held at the Expoville Conventions and Exhibitions Center in Joinville, Santa Catarina state, Brazil, on Aug. 5. Albari Sosa | AFP via Getty Images

RIO BONITO, Brazil — At a shooting range a man applying for a gun permit points a pistol and fires 10 shots at a human-shaped target 20 feet away. Nearly all the bullets hit the target's sweet spot in the middle of the torso.

The shooter, Wagner Carneiro, is a former Brazilian army sergeant. He explains that a man in a car asking for directions suddenly pointed a gun to his head and demanded his mobile phone. Now, the 40-year-old Carneiro wants a gun for himself.

Wagner Carneiro at shooting range in Rio Bonito, Brazil, on July 16.
Wagner Carneiro at shooting range in Rio Bonito, Brazil, on July 16. John Otis | NPR

"I need it to protect my family," he says, speaking from the range in the town of Rio Bonito, about 40 miles west of Rio de Janeiro.

Thanks to President Jair Bolsonaro, a right-wing populist whose hero is former President Donald Trump, it's become a lot easier for Brazilians like Carneiro to get guns. Since taking office in 2019, Bolsonaro has issued more than a dozen decrees loosening restrictions on gun ownership for civilians.

Bolsonaro, who faces a tough reelection battle in October, has avidly courted Brazil's growing gun lobby and often poses for photos making a gun sign with his thumb and forefinger.

"Expanding the right of the population to bear arms has been one of Bolsonaro's main electoral promises from day one," says Fábio Zanini, a columnist for Folha de S.Paulo, a leading Brazilian newspaper. "Gun owners are one of his main electoral bases."

There are still more gun regulations in Brazil than in the United States, including mandatory psychological and firearm safety exams. But now private citizens can buy more powerful handguns and ammunition and in greater quantities. Collectors and competitive shooters can purchase automatic rifles.

Since 2018, the number of guns in private hands has doubled to nearly 2 million, according to data from Brazil's army and police analyzed by Brazilian security think tank Sou da Paz.

Gun stores and shooting tournaments are popping up all over Brazil. They include the massive Schützenfest, held in southern Brazil where many people are of German descent, and is a combination of beer-drenched Oktoberfest and shooting guns. An average of one new shooting range per day has opened during Bolsonaro's nearly four years in office, Brazil's UOL website reported.

Some Brazilian gun enthusiasts mimic their American counterparts by talking about their "Second Amendment" rights, even though there is no constitutional right to bear arms here. Others, like Rodrigo Santoro, who is training to become a weapons instructor at the Rio Bonito shooting range, don't trust the police to protect them from well-armed criminals.

"The main principle is to defend yourself, your family, your home," he says. "We defend guns in the hands of the good people because the bad guys already have guns."

After President Bolsonaro, Brazil's highest-profile gun advocate, is his son, congressman Eduardo Bolsonaro. In July, he celebrated his 38th birthday with a cake decorated with a revolver. He claims that looser gun regulations have helped bring down Brazil's homicide rate.

"It was the biggest drop in murders ... since 1980," he told Tucker Carlson of Fox News in June. "So, Brazil is safer, thanks God, because of this policy."

But the country's homicide rate was on its way down even before Bolsonaro took office, says Bruno Langeani, the manager of Sou da Paz. And in spite of this trend, the murder rate here of over 22 killings per 100,000 people was still more than three times higher than in the U.S. in 2020, according to World Bank figures.

Cecília Olliveira, who directs Fogo Cruzado, a project that maps gun violence in Brazilian cities, says that instead of promoting gun ownership for self-protection, authorities should focus on reforming the police.

"When you [say]: 'I have to protect myself because the police are not working,' this is not right," she says. "The point is: We have to make the police work in the right way."

Mass shootings carried out by civilians in Brazil are rare. But rising gun ownership has led to more suicides and gun accidents involving children, says Langeani of the Sou da Paz think tank. In addition, he says drug-trafficking groups are recruiting civilians to legally purchase automatic rifles, which are then passed on to the criminals.

"We are seeing more and more episodes of what in the U.S. you would call 'straw buyer' purchase — diversion of firearms to crime," he says.

A Brazilian citizen shows his identification card to a Federal Police agent (left) as he trades in two collection rifles as part of a national firearm buyback program, in São Paulo, Brazil, July 23, 2004.
A Brazilian citizen shows his identification card to a Federal Police agent (left) as he trades in two collection rifles as part of a national firearm buyback program, in São Paulo, Brazil, July 23, 2004. Mauricio Lima | AFP via Getty Images

Ahead of October's election, polls show President Bolsonaro trailing left-wing candidate Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. He's a former president who tightened Brazil's gun laws when he first took office in 2003. That legislation prevented ordinary citizens from purchasing guns while a buyback program led to the return of more than 700,000 firearms. Immediately afterwards, Brazil's homicide rate went down, though it started creeping back up in 2007.

So, the prospect that Lula, as the former president is widely known, could return to power has some Brazilians scurrying to apply for gun permits, says Alexandre Coelho, an instructor at the shooting range in Rio Bonito and an ardent supporter of Bolsonaro.

"Left-wing governments don't believe in the right to self-defense. They believe the state has to defend you and will always be [there] to defend you. That is a lie," he says. "Right-wing governments believe in the right to self-defense."

Among his clients is Carneiro, the man who was robbed at gunpoint for his cellphone and who is now finishing up his shooting test. As he examines the bullet holes in the target, Coelho is impressed.

"A total of 95 points" of a possible 100, he says. "He is approved."

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Transcript :

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now to Brazil, where President Jair Bolsonaro is up for reelection in October. Win or lose, Bolsonaro has already brought some major changes to Brazil. Among them is a rollback of the country's gun control laws. NPR's John Otis has more, and we want to tell you that this report contains sounds of gunshots.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: At this firing range in Rio Bonito, a town just east of Rio de Janeiro, a man applying for a gun permit is being tested on his marksmanship.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUN FIRING)

OTIS: The shooter, Wagner Carneiro, is a former Brazilian army sergeant.

WAGNER CARNEIRO: (Non-English language spoken).

OTIS: Recently, Carneiro says, a man pointed a gun to his head and stole his mobile phone. Now he wants a gun to protect himself. Getting one in Brazil has become much easier. Since taking office in 2019, right-wing president Jair Bolsonaro has signed more than a dozen decrees loosening restrictions on gun ownership.

FABIO ZANINI: Expanding the right of the population to have arms and bear arms has been one of Bolsonaro's electoral promises from day one.

OTIS: That's Fabio Zanini, a columnist for Folha de Sao Paulo, Brazil's biggest newspaper.

ZANINI: Gun owners are one of his main electoral bases in Brazil. Bolsonaro loves to pose for pictures doing a gun sign, for example, with his fingers. That's one of his trademarks.

OTIS: There are still more regulations here than in the U.S., including mandatory psychological tests. But now private citizens can buy more powerful handguns and ammunition and in greater quantities. Collectors and competitive shooters can purchase automatic rifles like AR-15s. Since the new rules took effect, the number of guns in private hands has doubled to almost 2 million, according to Brazil's army and police. Gun stores, firing ranges and tournaments are popping up all over Brazil, including one called Schutzenfest.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

OTIS: Held in southern Brazil, where many people are of German descent, the festival is a mashup of beer-drenched Oktoberfest and shooting competitions. Some Brazilian gun enthusiasts talk about their Second Amendment rights, even though there is no constitutional right to bear arms here. Others, like Rodrigo Santoro, who's training to become a weapons instructor, don't trust the police to protect them from well-armed criminals.

RODRIGO SANTORO: The main principle is to defend yourself, your family, your home. We defend guns in the hands of the good people because the bad guys, they already have guns (laughter). You see that.

OTIS: Eduardo Bolsonaro, a Congressman and son of the president claims that looser gun regulations have helped bring down Brazil's homicide rate. Here he is speaking to Tucker Carlson of Fox News.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TUCKER CARLSON TONIGHT")

EDUARDO BOLSONARO: It was the biggest drop in murders since 1980. So Brazil is safer - thanks, God - because of this policy.

OTIS: But the country's homicide rate was on its way down even before Bolsonaro took office. And in spite of this trend, their murder rate here is still three times higher than in the U.S. Cecilia Olliveira of Fogo Cruzado, a project that maps gun violence in Brazil, says that instead of promoting gun ownership, authorities should focus on reforming the police.

CECILIA OLLIVEIRA: When you talk about I have to protect myself because the police is not working, this is not right. The point is we have to make the police work in the right way.

OTIS: Mass shootings in Brazil are rare, but rising gun ownership has led to more suicides and gun accidents involving children. In addition, drug trafficking groups are recruiting civilians to legally purchase automatic rifles, which are then passed on to the criminals. That's according to Bruno Langeani of Sou da Paz, a Brazilian think tank that focuses on security.

BRUNO LANGEANI: We are seeing more and more episodes of what, in the U.S., you would call straw buyer purchase, diversion of firearms to crime.

OTIS: Ahead of October's election, polls show President Bolsonaro trailing left-wing candidate Luis Inacio Lula da Silva. He's a former president who tightened Brazil's gun laws. So the prospect that Lula could return to power has some Brazilians scurrying to apply for gun permits, says Alexandre Coelho, an instructor at the shooting range in Rio Bonito.

ALEXANDRE COELHO: Because left-wing governments don't believe in the right of self-defense.

OTIS: Among Coelho's clients is the man who was robbed at gunpoint for his cell phone and who's now finishing up his shooting test.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

(SOUNDBITE OF GUN FIRING)

OTIS: As he examines the bullet holes in the target, Coelho is impressed.

COELHO: He did a total of 95 points.

OTIS: Oh, so he did really well.

COELHO: Really well - lost only 5 points. He's approved.

OTIS: John Otis, NPR News, Rio Bonito, Brazil.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.