Brazil Seeks to Copy U.S. Gun Culture

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Correction: This article was amended on Nov. 18. The original version of this story incorrectly described the proposed abortion law. The law would limit access to abortion in cases of rape. It also incorrectly described Laudivio Carvalho’s role in the legislation. He guided the bill through a special committee of lawmakers.

Congressmen in Brazil, one of the most violent countries in the world, are proposing to dramatically loosen restrictions on personal gun ownership, bringing the country much closer to the American right to bear arms.

The politicians say the measures are necessary to allow embattled citizens the right to defend themselves from criminals armed with illegal weapons. But opponents say the move will only increase the country’s toll of nearly 60,000 murders in 2014.

The draft law, which is set to be voted on by the lower house of congress this month, introduces a right for citizens to own firearms for self-defense or the protection of property. Currently, citizens must apply for a gun permit and justify why they need a gun, meaning that applications can be easily denied.

The bill also reduces the minimum age for the purchase of weapons from 25 to 21, removes a ban on those under criminal investigation owning or carrying weapons and allows citizens to buy nine guns and 600 rounds of ammunition a year.

“Brazil is an extremely violent country and the state has failed to resolve this problem,” says Laudivio Carvalho of the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party, who guided the bill through a special committee of lawmakers, in a telephone interview. “The population needs the right to defend themselves, their family and their property as they are the ones being attacked. Ninety percent of assaults are being carried out with illegal weapons.”

The approval of the law by a congressional committee this month is a “confession of bankruptcy,” opponent Alessandro Molon of the Sustainability Network party told a committee hearing into the draft law. “We are saying, ‘thanks to our incompetence, you can defend yourselves and live in a Western because we are inept,’” he added.

Critics fear the changes will lead to even more murders and an increase in vigilantism in a country where 50% of the population agree that “a good bandit is a dead bandit.” Last year Brazil recorded 58,497 murders, a rate of 28.8 per 100,000 people. By comparison, the U.S. recorded 14,249, a rate of 4.5.

“Without doubt we will see an increase in the murder rate,” says Ivan Marques, executive director of the Sou de Paz institute, which campaigns for disarmament. “The number of deaths is directly related to the number of guns on the streets.”

Marques said Brazil should not try to emulate the United States. “Our constitution emphasizes collective security not individual security,” he added.

After a disarmament law was passed in 2003 introduced many of the current restrictions, about half a million weapons have been sold and 170,000 gun permits issued.

In the first two years under the law the number of firearms murders fell, but then rose again, although campaigners such as Marques say they remain lower than they would have been without the legislation. Meanwhile, the black market in firearms remains huge. In 2014, police seized nearly 120,000 illegal weapons.

The draft law is the latest move by what has been dubbed by opponents as the Bullets, Beef and Bible Caucus in Brazil’s congress. Politicians linked to the security services, big agricultural firms and evangelical Christians consolidated their power in last year’s elections and have advanced a series of conservative measures.

Among the other laws being debated are a plan to lower the age of criminal responsibility to 16; narrow the country’s robust definition of slave labor; weaken indigenous tribes’ right to claim their ancestral lands; exclude homosexual couples from the definition of family; and limit access to abortion in cases of rape.

Some see the financial might of the arms industry in the plan to loosen gun control laws. In Brazil, there is no big grassroots equivalent to the National Rifle Association, but the firearms industry is a powerful lobby and has often contributed to political campaigns, says Ignacio Cano, a public security expert at Rio de Janeiro State University. The draft law lifts stringent restrictions on advertising by the gun industry.

“The gun lobby in Brazil is not as vocal as the NRA but they are nonetheless very powerful,” he says. “It would be a clear example of evil if we were to allow private interests to prevail over the public interest. This law is the last thing we need.”

Another of the bill’s sponsors, Rogério Peninha Mendonça, also of the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party, said he believes congress must respect the rights of the Brazilian people, who voted against a ban on arms sales in a 2005 vote. “I’ll tell my kids that we are recovering our rights,” he said. “We are not arming anybody.”

But the law is opposed by many on the frontline of public security, such as José Mariano Beltrame, the state security secretary in Rio de Janeiro who is charge of implementing an ongoing plan to “pacify” the city’s favela communities. “We need to disarm the bandits not arm the people,” he says in an emailed statement. “I hope congress will have a little more clarity and rationality and we can prevent this law from passing.”

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