By Simeon Tegel
LIMA, PERU — AFTER TWO disaffected former pupils killed five teenagers, an administrator and teacher at a school in the state of São Paulo earlier in March, gun advocates in Brazil quickly cited the tragedy as an example of why the country’s firearms laws needed to be relaxed.
“As long as guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns,” tweeted Major Sérgio Olímpio, a former police officer who is now a senator for Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s ultra-conservative Social Liberal Party. He added that the massacre proved the “failure and shamelessness of the ‘farce of disarmament policy’ that has armed criminals and prevented self-defense.”
If that kind of rhetoric resembles the arguments of gun rights proponents in the United States, it is not by chance. The National Rifle Association has long actively supported its Brazilian counterparts, dating back to 2003 when they campaigned together against the passage of the Disarmament Statute that now strictly controls access to firearms in the South American nation.
Now the public angst about Brazil’s record high rate of homicides is even more widespread while the controversial new president has enthusiastically endorsed firearms ownership as a way to address the problem, famously declaring on the campaign trail last year that “guns are a guarantee of freedom.” But Bolsonaro may yet find he has bitten off more than he can chew with his plans to emulate the U.S. by turning Brazil into just the second major democracy that allows virtually unrestricted adult access to firearms, including semi-automatic weapons.
Perhaps the biggest obstacle he faces is that most Brazilians — including many of those who voted for the maverick former army officer as a way to express their fury at the political establishment’s rampant corruption — oppose relaxing gun controls.
One survey conducted late last year found that 61 percent of Brazilians believed gun ownership should be banned for the general public. That is despite the best efforts of the NRA, which did not respond to a request for comment for this story, and its local partners.
Equally, it is far from certain that Bolsonaro could push a reform of gun laws through Brazil’s splintered Congress, whose current members hail from 30 different parties.
“I hope that some don’t try to defend the idea that if only the teachers had been armed, the problem would have been resolved, for the love of God!” was the response of Rodrigo Maia, a prominent lawmaker within Bolsonaro’s ruling coalition to the school shooting, according to The Associated Press.
“Public opinion is not aligned with the president on this,” says Michele dos Ramos, a public safety researcher with the Igarapé Institute, a Rio de Janeiro-based think tank, citing a study that showed that people who used a gun to defend themselves against robbers were actually 56 percent more likely to die. “It’s an intense debate in Brazil right now, but if anything, last week’s events affirmed that trend.”
Brazil is already awash with guns, many of them illicit albeit initially acquired legally, and has a sky-high murder rate. Indeed, with more than 40,000 gun deaths in 2016, the South American nation is the only country with more such fatalities than the United States.
However, says dos Ramos, that death toll typically does not include the kind of mass shootings that have now become commonplace in the United States. “That is one trend Brazilians definitely do not want to import from the U.S.”
The Brazilian gun debate has also featured much more prominently the high number of fatalities caused by suicides, domestic violence and accidents — especially those involving children. Meanwhile, many have noted that this month’s killers at the Professor Raul Brasil State School, who are reported to have studied the Columbine massacre, used a pistol, as well as an ax. Had the attackers had access to semiautomatic weapons, firearms critics say, the bloodshed could have been far greater.
To make matters worse, critics warn that the advent of social media and the copycat nature of mass shootings mean that easy access to firearms could see the São Paulo massacre as the start of a horrific new trend in Brazil were gun access opened up across the country.
Since the tragedy, Bolsonaro has been uncharacteristically silent on the issue of firearms. Long a member of the so-called “bullet caucus” of pro-gun advocates in the Brazilian legislature, the president passed a decree in January, shortly after taking office, that reinterprets the Disarmament Statute in ways that effectively allows anyone over the age of 25 without a criminal record or known psychological issues to own a firearm.
The most important change is that the decree redefines the need for a firearm as living in a state with an annual homicide rate higher than 10 per 100,000 residents. Brazil had a 2017 national rate of 30.8 murders per 100,000, according to the Brazilian Forum of Public Security, a nonprofit research institute. None of its states had a rate below the 10 per 100,000 threshold.
Yet that decree, supposedly the first step in Bolsonaro’s plan to completely liberalize gun ownership, is now being challenged by the opposition, whose lawmakers are pushing a bill to overturn it.
All of that means that despite Brazilians’ visceral concerns about violent crime, and demands for radical action, the U.S. may yet remain an outlier as the only major democracy with ready access to guns.
Other countries have responded to mass shootings by drastically tightening firearm ownership laws, including the U.K., Australia and, just last week, New Zealand in the wake of the white supremacist attack on two mosques that saw 50 people die.
Brazil may not be about to follow suit. Yet, despite Bolsonaro’s desire, nor is it necessarily about to join the U.S. in allowing near universal adult access to firearms.
“In Brazil, gun ownership is seen as a responsibility and a privilege, not a constitutional right,” dos Ramos says. “The U.S. is really unique in that regard and although those of us who want strict controls in Brazil need to be very active right now, it is far from clear that that is about to change.”