Brazil eyes 'Wild West' gun ownership law

Javier Tovar
1 / 3

State employees and public figures as well as private citizens in the public eye would be authorized to carry arms under proposed new laws in Brazil

State employees and public figures as well as private citizens in the public eye would be authorized to carry arms under proposed new laws in Brazil (AFP Photo/Christophe Simon)

Rio de Janeiro (AFP) - Brazil, which has one of the highest murder tolls on the planet, could soon end most restrictions on gun ownership, risking what one critic called a "Wild West" scenario.

A draft law stripping away current limits has already been approved in committee and is due to go to the lower house of Congress in November.

Under the law, anyone over 21, including people accused of crimes or convicted of less than serious crimes, would be allowed to purchase up to nine firearms a year and 50 rounds of ammunition a month.

State employees and public figures, ranging from government inspectors to politicians, would be authorized to carry arms, as would private citizens often in the public eye such as taxi drivers.

At present, weapons can only be bought legally by people obtaining a license on a case-by-case basis.

Supporters say freeing up gun sales will allow people to protect themselves in a country plagued by violent robbery and intense confrontations between drug gangs and police, with some 40,000 gun-related deaths a year.

"Our proposal is to guarantee the good citizen's right to self-defense," said the law's author Laudivio Carvalho, from the powerful centrist PMDB party.

But opponents fear that Brazil's orgy of gun violence would simply spin further out of control.

"It's a return to the Wild West," said Ivan Valente, a deputy from the leftist PSOL party.

- Bullets and Bibles -

The bid to overturn the existing 2003 law on regulations is part of a conservative agenda in Congress where Evangelists and the so-called "bullet-caucus" of right wing politicians with links to the security services are a powerful force.

Related draft laws include seeking a legal definition of family that would exclude homosexual couples and criminalizing abortion for women in cases of rape.

The same congressional wing is allied to the agricultural lobby and is pushing for legislation that critics say would seriously weaken indigenous tribes' control over their ancestral lands.

One of the most noted members of this right-wing caucus is Eduardo Cunha, the lower house speaker who is the key figure in an ongoing battle by opponents of leftist President Dilma Rousseff to seek her impeachment.

Deputy Joao Rodrigues, from the right-wing PSD party, said the gun law is necessary because the state "does not fulfil its obligations" to defend citizens.

"We need a cleansing. These criminals walk around and kill as they want. These people should be put out of business one way or another," he was quoted as saying by O Globo newspaper.

But in a society where mob justice and lynchings of suspected criminals is common, some worry that more availability of weapons will not bring peace.

"A weapon is a great ally for someone on the attack, but the worst enemy of someone trying to defend himself," said Ivan Marques, director of the Instituto Sou da Paz, a think tank studying violence.

"We need to disarm people, not arm them," said Jose Mariano Beltrame, the head of Rio de Janeiro state's security department.

- Big business -

Marques accused the arms industry of "playing on people's fear" and said Brazilian manufacturers are producing most of the weapons used in crimes in the country.

"The weapon that is used to kill and rob in Brazil is made here and in most cases was originally bought by someone for self-defense," Marques said.

A study of 14,000 weapons confiscated between 2013 and 2014 showed that 86 percent had been made in Brazil, he said.

About 500,000 weapons have been sold since the current law came into effect and 170,000 gun permits issued, according to official statistics cited by Marques.

In the first two years under the current restrictions the number of firearms murders fell 5.6 percent and two percent, but since then the number began to rise.

Marques says that's because the law was never properly applied. "We simply need more verification," he said.