Brazilian Supreme Court delivers blow to Bolsonaro’s gun policy, cites risk of political violence

President Bolsonaro poses with a rifle during the delivery of weapons to the Federal Police in Rio de Janeiro, September 2020 / Carolina Antunes - Presidency of Brazil

In a decision representing a severe setback to the government of President Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s Supreme Court limited the scope of his presidential decrees that facilitated Brazilians’ access to firearms.

The decision was made in part because of an increased risk of political violence in the country, according to the court. 

Of the 11 judges that make up the country’s highest court, nine voted in favor of the restrictions. Only two judges, both appointed by the current president,expressed their opposition to the measure.

The decision, issued on September 20 at the request of the PT (Workers Party) and PSB (Brazilian Socialist Party) political parties who are concerned about the possibility of violence surrounding the October 2 presidential elections, suspends some of the “effects” of decrees enacted by the Bolsonaro administration to simplify the purchase of firearms by ordinary citizens. 

Those provisions included making it easier for citizens to purchase high-caliber weaponry usually used by security forces, as well as the ability to acquire large quantities of ammunition., 

Legal gun registrations jumped from 117,000 to 673,00 under President Bolsonaro, reported France 24.

Session of the Supreme Court on 9/21/2022 – Nelson Jr. / STF Agency

According to the Supreme Court’s determination, from now on the possession of weapons will only be granted to people who can prove, in a concrete and effective way, that they need firearms for professional or personal reasons. Firearms for restricted use, such as rifles, for example, can only be purchased by public security and national defense services and not for personal interests. 

The decision also affects the amount of ammunition which can be purchased by the citizenry. 

“The amount of ammunition that gun owners can purchase is diligently and proportionately limited to only what is necessary to ensure the safety of citizens,” read the ruling. e. This means that the limit of up to 550 rounds that was allowed by the presidential decrees will no longer be valid, and now each case will be analyzed individually.

A breath of hope 

Speaking to Brazil Reports, Fellipe Angeli, advocacy manager at Instituto Sou da Paz, a non-governmental organization that studies the evolution of urban violence in Brazil, said the Supreme Court’s decision represents a small step towards normality.

“The president tests the limits by editing these decrees that are totally unconstitutional, and he knows it, but this is part of this war of narratives that is installed in the country today,” said Mr. Angeli.

Rules for civilians to acquire weapons were tightened in December 2003 after the passage of the Disarmament Statute, a federal law dedicated to the issue. Carrying a gun on the streets was practically forbidden for ordinary people, and the right to have a gun inside a house was also restricted.

Facilitating the population’s access to weapons has always been one of Mr. Bolsonaro’s main goals. Since the beginning of his term in January 2019, around 40 normative acts, including decrees, ordinances, and resolutions on the subject, have been enacted to date. In general, his justification for these measures is to guarantee safety to Brazilians.

President Bolsonaro holds a rifle during the delivery of weapons to the Federal Highway Police in Rio de Janeiro, September 2020 / Carolina Antunes – Presidency of Brazil

After these actions issued by Mr. Bolsonaro, Brazil started to allow any citizen over 25 to acquire a firearm. Some bureaucratic requirements are necessary, such as the absence of a criminal record or run-ins with the police,  and the presentation of reports that prove technical and psychological capabilities to those who want to possess a firearm.

Currently, guns can be legally purchased by anyone who has a hunting, collector’s, or marksman’s registration, or by anyone who declares a need for patrimonial or personal protection. In cases of patrimonial or personal defense, weapons must be purchased at a duly regulated store and all stages of the process must be approved by the Federal Police. In the cases of hunters, sport shooters, and collectors, the process is monitored  by the Brazilian Army.

Results of Bolsonaro’s pro-gun campaign

President Bolsonaro shoots during a visit to the Federal Highway Police shooting range in Rio de Janeiro, September 2020 / Carolina Antunes – Presidency of Brazil

The president’s effort to arm more Brazilians is slowly seeing success..

According to data collected by the Instituto Sou da Paz and Instituto Igarapé, both of which study cases of violence in the country, Brazil set a new record in terms of legal access to weapons last year. As of November 2021, the Army had granted 1,162 new registrations per day, guaranteeing gun ownership for hunters, sport shooters, and collectors. In July of this year, the country reached the symbolic number of 1 million legalized weapons circulating in the hands of the population. 

The evolution shows that since the end of 2018, when Mr. Bolsonaro took office, the number of guns on the street has risen 187%. There are 1,006,725 weapons compared to 350,683 registered at the beginning of 2018.

According to Mr. Angeli, the urban violence expert, it could take 10 to 15 years to accurately study the effects of the increase in firearms circulating around Brazil. 

“First you have the decrees that facilitate access to weapons. Next, there is a greater number of sales of these weapons and then, a greater circulation of them on the streets, which will probably end up evolving into cases of violence in a few years, “said Mr. Angeli.

Even so, he recognizes that this reality has the potential to provoke isolated tragedies in the short term. 

He cites a recent case that shocked São Paulo in which a 39-year-old man who was legally authorized to carry a gun ambushed his wife with a rifle on the street, killing her and her two-year-old child (a second child, 4, was also in the car but was unharmed). The killer had been authorized because he was a hunter, collector and a former marksman in the army. 

With the recent decision taken by the Brazilian Supreme Court, the expectation is that cases like this will not happen as frequently, since from now on, the guidelines established by the disarmament statute of 2003 will once again regulate gun control in Brazil.

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