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RIO BONITO, Brazil — At a shooting range, a man applying for a firearms license points a pistol and fires 10 rounds at a human-shaped target 20 feet away. Almost all of the bullets hit the sweet spot of the target in the middle of the torso.
The shooter, Wagner Carneiro, is a former sergeant in the Brazilian army. He explains that a man in a car asking for directions suddenly pointed a gun to his head and demanded his cell phone. Now Carneiro, 40, wants a gun for himself.
“I need it to protect my family,” he says, speaking from the beach in the city of Rio Bonito, about 40 miles west of Rio de Janeiro.
Thanks to President Jair Bolsonaro, a right-wing populist whose hero is former President Donald Trump, it has become much easier for Brazilians like Carneiro to get guns. Since taking office in 2019, Bolsonaro has issued more than a dozen executive orders easing restrictions on civilian gun ownership.
Bolsonaro, who faces an uphill battle for re-election in October, has avidly courted Brazil’s gun lobby and often poses for photos while making a gun sign with his thumb and index finger.
“Expanding people’s right to bear arms has been one of Bolsonaro’s main election promises from day one,” says Fábio Zanini, columnist for Folha de S. Paulo, a major Brazilian newspaper. “Gun owners are one of his main electoral bases.”
There are even more gun regulations in Brazil than in the United States, including mandatory psychological and gun safety exams. But now, individuals can purchase more powerful handguns and ammunition in greater quantities. Collectors and competitive shooters can purchase automatic rifles.
Since 2018, the number of guns owned by individuals has doubled to almost 2 million, according to data from the Brazilian military and police analyzed by a Brazilian security think tank Sou da Paz.
Gun shops and shooting tournaments are popping up all over Brazil. They include the massive Schutzenfest, held in southern Brazil where many people are of German descent, and is a combination of Oktoberfest washed down with beer and shotguns. An average of one new shooting range a day opened for nearly four years in Bolsonaro’s rule, the Brazilian UOL website reported.
Some Brazilian gun enthusiasts mimic their American counterparts in talking about their “Second Amendment” rights, even though there is no constitutional right to bear arms here. Others, like Rodrigo Santoro, who is training to become a weapons instructor at the Rio Bonito shooting range, don’t trust the police to protect them from well-armed criminals.
“The main principle is to defend yourself, your family, your home,” he says. “We stand for guns in the hands of the right people because the bad guys already have guns.”
After President Bolsonaro, Brazil’s most prominent gun advocate is his son, a congressman Eduardo Bolsonaro. In July, he celebrated his 38th birthday with a cake decorated with a revolver. He says looser gun regulations have helped lower Brazil’s homicide rate.
“It was the biggest drop in murders…since 1980,” he said. Tucker-Carlson from Fox News in June. “So Brazil is safer, thank God, thanks to this policy.”
But the country homicide rate was on the verge of falling even before Bolsonaro took office, says Bruno Langeani, the director of Sou da Paz. And despite this trend, the murder rate here of more than 22 murders per 100,000 population was still more than three times higher than in the WE in 2020, according to World Bank figures.
Cecília Olliveira, who directs Fogo Cruzadoa project that maps gun violence in Brazilian cities says that instead of promoting gun ownership for self-protection, authorities should focus on police reform.
“When you [say]”I have to protect myself because the police aren’t working, that’s not right,” she says. “The fact is, we have to make sure the police are working in the right way.”
Mass shootings perpetrated by civilians in Brazil are rare. But the rise in gun ownership has led to more suicides and gun accidents involving children, says Langeani of think tank Sou da Paz. Moreover, he says drug trafficking groups recruit civilians to legally purchase automatic rifles, which are then passed on to criminals.
“We are seeing more and more episodes of what in the United States you would call buying a ‘straw buyer’ – the diversion of guns to crime,” he says.
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Before the October elections, polls show President Bolsonaro trailing left-wing candidate Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. He is a former president who strengthened Brazil’s gun laws when he took office in 2003. legislation prevented ordinary citizens from buying guns while a buy-back program led to the return of more than 700,000 guns. Immediately after, the homicide rate in Brazil fell, although it started to rise again in 2007.
So the prospect that Lula, as the former president is widely known, could return to power has some Brazilians rushing to apply for firearms permits, says Alexandre Coelho, an instructor at the Rio Bonito shooting range and ardent Bolsonaro supporter.
“Left governments do not believe in the right to self-defense. They believe that the state must defend you and will always be [there] to defend yourself. It’s a lie,” he said. “Right-wing governments believe in the right to self-defense.
Among his clients is Carneiro, the man who was robbed at gunpoint for his cell phone and is now completing his shooting test. As he examines the bullet holes in the target, Coelho is impressed.
“A total of 95 points” out of a possible 100, he says. “It is approved.”