Brazil: Lula’s arms control begins with a count

Gun Rights

SAO PAULO (AP) — Jonathan Schmidt arrived at the federal police headquarters in downtown Rio de Janeiro with an overnight bag containing a golden pistol and seven rifles, one of which was sticking out of the zipper.

“I’m in love with guns,” Schmidt said. “I’d have more than 2,000 if the government let me.”

Schmidt’s guns were already registered with the military, as required by law for sport shooters like him, but experts have questioned the reliability of the database, saying lax oversight has allowed those guns to fall into the hands of criminals. Schmidt entered his weapons in the police registry on Wednesday to comply with the initiative of Brazil’s new left-wing president.

In his four years in power, former President Jair Bolsonaro tried to turn a country with few guns into one where gun ownership and lack of regulation meant personal freedom. Now his successor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, has taken steps to undo those pro-gun policies, and that starts with asking owners to register them with the police. After initial resistance, some progress has begun to be seen.

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In the country’s last gun control campaign, in 2003, Brazilians were invited to hand over their weapons in exchange for a token payment from the state. Participation in the initiative was very high.

In the eyes of the right-wing Bolsonaro, however, the disarmament statute was a historic mistake. Echoing aspects of American conservatism, he was the first Brazilian presidential candidate to campaign for guns, arguing that “good citizens” have the right to have them to protect their families and property. He changed the rules on the amount of ammunition that can be possessed and access to restricted-caliber weapons, such as submachine guns. And he repeatedly stated that “an armed people will never be enslaved.”

The Sou da Paz Institute, a non-governmental organization that monitors public security, estimates that under Bolsonaro the number of weapons in the hands of Vasi civilians tripled to 2.2 million in a country of 214 million people. It continues to be well below the United States and Brazil does not contemplate the constitutional right to bear arms.

“We had strong growth in access to firearms, including those with restricted use,” Michele dos Ramos, who heads the justice ministry’s working group in charge of gun policy, told The Associated Press for phone. “In order to write any guidelines to restructure the policies and regulations on weapons and ammunition, it is important to have a diagnosis of the situation of those weapons.”

On his first day in office, Lula issued a decree requiring gun owners to register their guns with the federal police, pushing the original deadline to May 3. At the Rio police station, officers have searched weapons belonging to up to 50 people per day. But they are cautious.

“There was a lot of concern, mainly at the beginning, when they arrived here. They thought we were going to confiscate their weapons,” Marcelo Daemon, head of the Rio police department that oversees gun control, said in an interview at his office. “A lot of fake news circulated on social media and people came with fear”.

Some politicians contributed to the general suspicion. On March 17, federal legislator Julia Zanatta shared a photo in which she appeared with a machine gun, dressed in a shirt with the phrase “COME AND TAKE IT” (“Come and take it”) and an image of Lula’s hand crossed by three bullet holes. Paulo Bilynskyj, a legislator and former Sao Paulo police chief, shared the instructions to follow in the event of a weapons seizure.

“We have a more armed country, a stronger gun culture, more representatives focused on the pro-gun agenda,” said Carolina Ricardo, executive director of the Sou da Paz Institute, adding that Congress will be the “thorn in the side” of the groups pushing for stricter gun control. The so-called “bullet group,” made up of pro-gun legislators, won dozens of new seats in last year’s elections.

Prior to the registry initiated by the Lula government, the military collected and retained gun data from sporting owners, collectors, and hunters, known as CACs. Bolsonaro removed the requirement that registrants go through the arduous process of submitting documentation, justifications, and psychological tests to the federal police, who in turn register weapons for self-defense, thus limiting the department’s control over the total number of weapons in circulation.

Army data indicates that CACs have purchased 762,365 firearms since May 7, 2019, when Bolsonaro made major changes to access to guns and ammunition. But the Instituto Sou da Paz and the Igarape Institute, another security-focused nongovernmental organization, estimate that the figure does not reflect nearly 100,000 additional weapons, according to data collected through freedom of information requests.

By requiring in-person registration, the government hopes to determine precisely how many guns and what types are no longer in the hands of their original owners and, potentially, in the hands of criminal groups.

Most gun advocates have come out in favor, though some have reluctantly encouraged their supporters to do so. In mid-March, Marcos Pollon, a federal lawmaker who heads a pro-gun group often compared to the US National Rifle Association, called the government initiative “absolutely illegal and unconstitutional.” A week later, he posted a video on YouTube, where he has more than 150,000 subscribers, saying that he had registered his gun and those who did not would face consequences.

But the government’s next steps remain unclear. The group led by Ramos should have delivered a series of recommendations to the government before the deadline that expired on May 3.

According to Ricardo, future government actions could include new rules that further limit the ammunition and weapons that a person can possess, and the integration of army and police databases.

Lula’s January 1 decree states that weapons that have not been registered within the deadline can be confiscated. This means that those who have not taken their guns to the police could be in legal trouble, even if they are only stopped on the way to the shooting range.

Schmidt, the Rio gun owner, considered the government’s move an embarrassment. But now, he points out, he recognizes that it is important for federal police to know all the weapons that civilians possess.

“In this way, we remain legal,” he said.

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Associated Press writer David Biller and producer Diarlei Rodrigues in Rio de Janeiro contributed to this report.

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