Bolsonaro loosens gun laws in murder-ridden Brazil

BRASILIA/RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro on Tuesday signed a temporary decree making it easier for Brazilians to buy guns, delivering on a campaign promise to overturn strict regulations in a country suffering from a record wave of murders.

FILE PHOTO: A client catches a handgun at the 1911 Shooting Club in Sao Paulo, Brazil, January 11, 2019. REUTERS/Nacho Doce

Bolsonaro won the presidency by running on a far-right, law-and-order platform, and often delighted supporters at campaign stops with his signature “guns up” hand gesture. His maverick presidential run energized a base of rural landowners, Christian conservatives and free-market hawks who yearned for a tougher response to years of rising violence and political graft.

The temporary decree, which will expire in 120 days unless ratified by Congress, is likely to thrill his supporters, but many others fear it will only worsen violence in Brazil. The country suffered a record 64,000 murders in 2017, the most in the world. Nearly 45,000 of those homicides involved firearms.

A former paratrooper who took office on Jan. 1, Bolsonaro eventually wants to overturn a 2003 law that effectively banned the civilian purchase of guns.

“To guarantee citizens their legitimate right to defense, I, as president, will use this weapon,” Bolsonaro said, holding up the pen he used to sign the decree.

Onyx Lorenzoni, Bolsonaro’s chief of staff, said the government was considering lower taxes on guns and opening up Brazil’s small arms market to foreign firms. The thornier question of granting more permits for citizens to carry guns outside of their home or personal business is also under study.

Shares of domestic gun maker Taurus Armas SA, which has a dominant share of the Brazilian market, dropped 16 percent in late trading on Tuesday, as investors took profits. The stock has more than tripled in the last 12 months as Bolsonaro was elected promising to loosen gun controls.

Gun laws toughened considerably under former leftist President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who in 2003 signed sweeping measures that prevented ordinary citizens from carrying guns. The law mandated background checks for gun purchases and gave federal police the right to reject applications for gun ownership for any reason.

However, Lula’s attempts to deepen gun control foundered in a 2005 referendum, when about 65 percent of Brazilians voted against a proposal to completely ban gun sales.

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Bolsonaro’s executive order will remove the “discretionary” role that police have in approving civilians’ requests to buy guns. He has said decisions about who can carry weapons are subjective.

The measure will apply to people living in the countryside, those residing in urban areas where the homicide rate is above 10 deaths per 100,000 people, and to “collectors and hunters.”

Brazilians will be allowed to keep up to four guns in their homes or offices, though that number could rise on a case-by-case basis. Any home with a child, or someone suffering from certain mental illnesses, must store the weapons in a safe.

Federal Police data shows that just over 646,000 legally-purchased arms are in circulation in Brazil. About half of those weapons are registered to private citizens. The rest are held by security personnel.

Accurate data on how many illegal firearms are in Brazil is hard to come by, but previous studies from the Justice Ministry suggest nearly 8 million guns are in the country illegally.

Brazil’s heavily armed drug gangs and paramilitary militias easily get weapons smuggled over the country’s porous borders. Gangs in Rio de Janeiro almost exclusively carry Glock weapons, and have obtained an array of AR rifles that come from U.S. and European manufacturers.

Lorenzoni said the decree restored the right of citizens to have a weapon for their legitimate defense.

“Studies show that the better armed the population is the less violence there will be,” Lorenzoni told the GloboNews cable channel. He said armed robberies of homes had increased because thieves knew residents could not defend themselves.

Robert Muggah, director of research at the Rio-based Igarape Institute, a security and development think tank, said that was not true.

“There is no hard evidence that loosening access to firearms improves public safety or security,” he said. “By contrast, there is considerable evidence that responsible regulations are associated with reductions in gun-related homicide of civilians and police officers alike.”

Reporting by Maria Carolina Marcela Brasilia and Gabriel Stargardter in Rio de Janeiro; Additional reporting by Brad Brooks and Paula Laier in Sao Paulo; Editing by Brad Haynes, Steve Orlofsky and Rosalba O’Brien