From endorsing Brazil’s military regime to fashioning himself as the Brazilian Donald Trump, Brazilian presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro has a flair for generating controversy. According to a report from Reuters, Bolsonaro is considering the relaxation of Brazil’s strict gun laws. For a country besieged by street violence, Bolsonaro’s proposal is a breath of fresh air.
Brazil Has a Violence Problem
Brazil features some of the most violent cities on the planet. According to a recent ranking from the Citizen's Council for Public Security and Criminal Justice (CCSPJP), 19 of these cities are located in Brazil. With a rate of 30.8 homicides per 100,000 people in 2017, Brazil is one of the most violent countries in Latin America.
Organized crime and feuds between rival gangs have contributed to the alarming levels of violence throughout the country. But criminal elements are not alone in this violence equation. Heavy-handed security measures have also played a role in Brazil’s ever-rising homicide rates.
Traditionally a function of individual states, Brazilian armed forces recently took control of public security in Rio de Janeiro. Current president Michel Temer rationalized this extreme measure arguing that “circumstances demand it.”
In Brazil, the use of military force to battle crime is nothing new
The country already enjoys notoriety for its infamous favelas (slums) that are rife with gang violence. As a result, military and well-armed security forces have been deployed on numerous occasions to quell violence. So far, the war-like struggle between gangs and security forces has produced a significant body count.
According to figures from Gunpolicy.org, Brazil had approximately 45,000 firearms homicides in 2014 alone. Even with a tough government response, there appears to be no end in sight to Brazil’s crime problems.
Is More Policing the Silver Bullet?
International concern about Brazil’s levels of violence is warranted. However, experts tend to provide conventional solutions to Brazil’s ongoing crime problems such as more “efficient” policing and anti-corruption task forces. These “common sense” proposals, while reasonable, involve more government intrusion in peoples’ lives and do not strike at the root of Brazil’s problems.
It’s no secret Brazil has a lousy law enforcement infrastructure that fails to protect its people. Jair Bolsonaro himself was the victim of a highly publicized stabbing attack on the campaign trail. But such incidents aren’t just limited to the political class. Millions of Brazilians living in urban areas throughout the country must cope with the daily threat of violent crimes.
In an interview with the Council on Foreign Relations, gun researcher John Lott revealed how the average police response time is more than an hour in the poorest areas of Brazil; an unreliable response time for a country that so desperately needs public order. This takes the adage of “when seconds count, the police are just minutes way” to another level.
Gun Control: The 800 Pound Elephant in the Room
Questionable policing is only the tip of the iceberg. Brazil’s gun control laws are problematic for a country suffering a widespread crime epidemic. In the same interview with CFR, Lott adds another overlooked fact about Brazil’s gun control experience: “Between 1992 and 2002, it passed a total of eighteen gun-control regulations and laws. I think this is just a continuation of the trend.”
Despite numerous gun control regulations already on the books, crime has continued to rise. For a law-abiding Brazilian, getting a gun is no walk in the park. They must comply with the following requirements:
1. Be 25 years of age
2. Hold a license
3. Pay registration fees
4. Go through extensive background checks
Thanks to these regulatory hoops, only 3.5% of the Brazilian population legally owned firearms prior to 2004. In sum, Brazil’s current gun control status quo treats gun ownership more like a regulated privilege rather than a right that the masses are free to exercise.
Brazil is Waking Up
Thankfully, Bolsonaro has not been alone in his advocacy for reforming guns laws. Organizations like the Viva Brazil Movement have taken up the mantle of expanding gun rights in the crime-ridden country. The Viva Brazil Movement came to the spotlight in 2005 when they played an integral role in defeating a referendum that would have banned firearms in Brazil.
Since their victory, the Viva Brazil Movement has continued its push to expand gun rights in Brazil. And now they might get a major political break.
Tense as ever, Brazil’s political climate has taken a sharp turn for the worse since it hosted the World Cup in 2014. Since news of several corruption scandals taking place during the World Cup surfaced, serve political dominoes have fallen.
If passed, gun reform would bring much needed sanity to Brazil’s political scene. Brazilian citizens would then have a tool of empowerment in times where corruption and violence are the order of the day.
Win or lose, Bolsonaro has at least opened up the conversation on a historically taboo topic in Latin American politics. If Brazil is able to move in a pro-gun direction, it will serve as a beacon of hope for a Latin American region that is wedded to gun control.