Explaining Brazil #300: Gun debate becoming ubiquitous in Brazil’s Congress

Gun Rights

Transcript by Cockatoo

When far-right politician Jair Bolsonaro rose to win Brazil’s presidential election in 2018, guns and violence were hallmarks of his campaign. He talked about gunning down his left-wing opponents, one of his big promises involved facilitating firearm permits for those who he called upstanding citizens, and he signed off all of his public events by giving his infamous finger gun salutes. Indeed, his government did bring about a spate of decrees and rule changes facilitating gun ownership and firearm purchases, but since his defeat, this pro-gun push in Brazil has

certainly not gone away. Brazilian public security think tank, Fogo Cruzado, released a new study showing that congressional debates around gun regulations are becoming more and more frequent in Brazil. The institute analyzed the records for more than seven decades, including legislature, since 1951. And that’s what we’re going to be talking about on today’s episode. My name is Euan Marshall, Deputy Editor of The Brazilian Report, and this is Explaining Brazil.

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Townsend, Miller Reynasido, Peter Abramson, David Dixon, Josette Ozzy Stankovich, Emerging Market Muser, Anna Lund, Peter Suffren, Irmarsson Da Silva, and someone who chose to remain anonymous. And before we go back to today’s episode, we’d like to show you a little bit of our new series. To discuss guns in Brazil, we’re joined today by Maria Isabel Couto, who’s the Programmes Director at Fogo Cruzado, the think tank behind the aforementioned study on Congressional

gun debates. Maria Isabel, thanks so much for joining us today. Before we get into the debate about gun rights, can you tell us a little bit about where Brazil stands in terms of its gun laws? I mean, the country isn’t as permissive as the US, of course, but it’s also not as restrictive as many other countries, such as some in Asia,

for example.

I think the first issue we have to state very clearly is that before we talk about legislation, explain, if the audience is not aware of it, that Brazil is the leading country on people killed by firearms every year. There is no other country in the world where so many people are killed with firearms. So it is a very, very big issue, very important problem in Brazil. This is the first thing I wanted to state. When it comes to legislation, Brazil is neither permissive nor a country where gun ownership, It is a right of Brazilian people to have guns.

Brazilians can have guns, but there are rules for it. There are mechanisms of control for civilians to access guns, to possess guns. Something is really important. Possession is a right in Brazil, a constitutional right in Brazil. But to be armed in the streets, this is restricted. Brazilian civilians do not have the right to go on the streets with arms. They can have guns inside their homes or their workplace, but not in the streets.

Brazil, in 2003, 2003 and 2004, Brazil approved one of, by then, one of the most modern legislations on gun control and gun access. It was called the Disarmament Statute. It was a really, really good legislation, very comprehensive, very clear in so many aspects of what people could and could not do, but as many laws, as many legislations, it became old with time. It needs improvements to better fit the reality we live in now. It’s not the same one. 20 years after, we don’t live in the same reality and it needs updating. But we have now a really, really different political context than the one we had in 2004.

So, things are a little bit trickier. And that’s one of the reasons why we decided to start this research, what lawmakers are thinking and saying about gun control in Brazil.

And how have gun control regulations been debated in Brazil?

What the research shows is we had a shift, an important shift, in how gun control is being debated along the years. We had pro… in the 90s and before the disarmament statute in 2003, had a very flexible right for gaps. we had problems like traffic disputes. People would crash cars against one another and people would solve those disputes with guns, like killing each other in the middle of the street. And by then, we had a civil society very organized around the team, around this team. It was also a moment around the world where we were seeing lots of countries and lots of civil society groups

countries talking about gun control policies and the importance of gun control policies. And in the late 19th and the beginning of the 2000s, we had a really absurd of groups talking about getting control. a place where people’s wishes, people’s citizens’ wishes for the country would be debated. And this was what we were seeing in that time. Congresswomen, congressmen were talking about the necessity of regulation, the necessity of gun control. And when we see historically in this research, speeches against and for

citizen gun ownership, we see that at the beginning, control, the speeches that stated the need to control would be the majority. They were the majority. And we had in 2014 a really big shift in the National Congress. 2014 was one in which we saw the biggest renewal of congresswomen and congressmen up to now. Many people who were historically occupying seats in the congress were not re-elected and many people who were for the first time disputing elections were elected. It’s called a really big renewal. And this renewal made conservatives

very much more strong, made conservatives stronger in the Congress. And with that, we saw a really big shift in the debate on civilian gun ownership. What we saw was an inversion from 2004, mostly 2006, until 2014. The group that was stating more control for civilian gun ownership, they started to decay in their speeches around Congress, because we had really good legislation. So it’s almost as if there was nothing to talk about, because this issue was put to bed. Everything was solved. There no need for modernizing and making this legislation better. So, this group began to become more loose.

But from 2014, especially 2015 onwards, what we saw is that this group, this conservative group that came into Congress very much more threatened. This was important to them and they began to organize around this theme. They began to organize around a discussion on civilian gun ownership, to lose the regulations so more people could have access to guns. And we are talking at a point in Brazil where the number of people killed every year was peaking.

In 2016, we reached a higher point of the number of people killed every year in Brazil. People were afraid. People were saying government do not have control on security. Government cannot guarantee people safety. started to mobilize this fear, started to use this fear to defend civilian gun ownership as a way to guarantee people’s security in a way that state government could not.

Is it fair to say that Brazil’s gun control discussion has been led by arguments imported from the US. I mean, we’ve seen that happening with many culture war issues such as freedom of expression, for example. What are the main arguments for and against looser rules for firearms?

I think so. I think we see some arguments from the US resonate here in Brazil too. At the disarmament statute was approved, for example, there was a… I don’t know how to say that… plebiscite. At the time of the approval of the disarmament statute, we had a plebiscite where people were called to vote on whether or not the commercialization, the selling of arms should be allowed for civilians or not. It was not a discussion on whether civilians could or couldn’t have guns, but it was a discussion on whether guns could be sold or not.

And the pro-control group lost the fight and the selling of guns, commercialization of guns were not prohibited. And at that time, the pro-civilian gun ownership group, they were basing the campaign for people yes to selling arms in an argument that we saw was really close to the American discussion. It was liberty. It was about liberty. Liberty of commerce, liberty of trade, liberty of… well, people should have the liberty to decide if they want or do not want to buy a gun. So this was not very much a Brazilian argument. I think it was really an important discussion from the States. the discussion of liberty had a lot of impact. It still impacts the discussion in Brazil.

Bringing the discussion to a closer time, what we see is, for example, from 2015 onwards in 1918 onwards, when Bolsonaro was president of Brazil, a president clearly pro civilian gun ownership. What we started to see in Congress was a debate that was stating people should have arms to defend themselves. The right to arms is the right to defend themselves. And this is a constitutional right and it cannot be violated. to an argument that says people should have guns so they won’t be slaved.

People should have guns so they can say stop to their governments when their governments are becoming less democratic or are saying something people don’t want to say. This was not a very heated discussion in Brazil before 2018. It was not an argument we saw most often. It became an argument we saw most often. And I think the Trump administration were talking to Americans and to the country. So, I think we can trace it back some very close bridges between what, especially, civilian gun ownership defencers in the States are saying around

the time.

And speaking of the US, does Brazil have any sort of equivalent to the NRA, the National Rifle Association?

Not very much. Not as strong as NRA, but it’s starting to shift. We have had in the Congress something for quite many years, we call it the bullet bench. It’s a group of Congresswomen and Congressmen who mostly along the years have defended the flexibilization of gun ownership legislation. They also are a group that usually defend stricter rules, more prison, they defend that police should enforce law using more and more force. they organize themselves around a lot of themes, a lot of important issues on public security and they are very loud in the agenda of public security. Much more louder than the groups

But, again, we have a shift. We actually had this latest election, national election, we had actually a shrinking of the bullet banks. specifically oriented to talk about gun ownership. It’s called ProArmas, it’s pro-guns. ProArmas is a civilian group, it’s not a political one. It gathered a lot of money, we don’t quite know still from where the money comes from, but it supported a lot of campaigns of deputies and senators. And it was able to elect 23 senators and deputies to the National Congress in the latest election.

In their manifest, they say that this congressman and congresswoman are obliged to dedicate at least one assistant project, to propose laws to the Congress to make gun ownership more accessible, easier to everyone. So this group, and it is an intention, a stated intention of this group, of ProAgnos, to become a political party. So they are lobbying for gun ownership very, very hard, but I don’t think they want to be like NRA because they want to actually be a political party. It’s a little bit different, but they have a lot of money, we don’t know where it comes from,

using their ability to be really, really, really loud. They are not many in Congress, they are not many people, they are not a majority, but they are very loud and they are using this agenda to pressure government in other fronts.

Now Jair Bolsonaro when he was president he made gun ownership laws much more liberal and the Lula administration has rolled back many of Bolsonaro’s gun policies. Can you explain how regulations have changed in recent years and what’s the negative effects of that, of zigzagging so much in such a short period of time?

We have, well, the environment statute, approved in 2003, is still valid. But it has many decisions at that time, seen little decisions that can be adjusted not by Congress, but by decrees. So, it can be adjusted by what we call executive decrees. Those decrees can be stated by president, the important agencies of administration that are entitled, that are responsible for arms control. So, mostly armed forces and the federal police. So, the president and the one leading the Brazilian army and the person leading the Federal Police, they are entitled to change some rules and it was in, well, over the years,

since the Conservative Statute, the laws were changed mainly through those mechanisms and not by actual legislation change. Well, this has had a major impact. It has mostly two major impacts. One is that, well, in the Temer administration and Jair Bolsonaro administration, they were able, those changes were able to facilitate the commercialization, the access to a lot more arms. moment, we have seen more than a million fire weapons get to the streets.

It’s a lot of weapons. It’s a lot of weapons to take it back. And second, we have like much, much more people with a kind of credential to possess arms that is a lot more flexible than the credential of a normal civilian. We call them CACs. So, we now are facing a problem that, although Rula has revoked the structure that was allowing more people to buy guns and more people to be taxed, we have already much more of them than we had before. The second biggest problem is it causes uncertainty.

So, when we are talking about regulations, when we are talking about norms, what we want is more stability. We need to know what can and cannot be done. And those changes, and those changes so fast, they create a chaos. So people, even people from administration, most often do not know what is prohibited. And that creates a scenario where the law is not applied. And if the law is not applied, it’s almost as if the law is not important, it’s not effective, it’s not considered. So what we have now is a lot of insecurity and that’s really, really bad for gun control policies.

And often there’s a bit of disparity between discussions in Congress and the actual desires and opinions of the population. But what’s the case with gun regulations? Do we have figures on where the Brazilian public stands on the matter?

Brazilians if they are or are not for civilian gun ownership? We have… and the answer has been quite stable over the time. Brazilians are not… Brazilians do not agree with civilian gun ownership. And this is important here because this is something that is… those opinion polls, they are seeing people being shot in the streets every day. When we talk, for example, of Rio de Janeiro, one state in Brazil, we have over the last

17 shootouts, 17 episodes of gun violence by day, every day. It’s a lot. Brazilians are scared of gun violence. They understand gun violence is one of the main problems in Brazil. So, every time we see those pools, we see people saying no, no to guns. Guns are not the solution. Guns are part of the problem. But those people are also saying to their governments they are scared and they need something to be done. And what we see is that those congressmen and congresswomen that are advocating for more flexible civilian ownership,

they choose to, they manipulate this fear, they use this fear to defend a policy that Brazilians do not agree on. But what we see when we see the debate, what the study shows very clearly, is that when we see what are congresswomen and congressmen talking about on the congress, when they talk about guns, the group that defend more flexible access to civilians on gun ownership, they are always talking about the right to defend, the people’s right to defend themselves and people’s fear of violence and the situation, the alarming situation of public security. They are always in touch with people’s fears. And when we talk about the group that defend more control, they are using, usually based on more technical discussions.

And pro-gun advocates say that the number of homicides has been dropping in Brazil and that that’s because of looser gun regulations. Can we relate those two things or not? Well, first, it’s not… when we talk about more guns in the streets and the

homicides curve, we are not talking about an immediate consequence. It takes some years for both control policies or flexibilization policies to affect this curve. So the first thing is, we do not have a consensus among scientists, but most of them will be on a range from three to five years to effectively So, this is point one. Point two is, well, we cannot, when we are measuring impact of policies, we cannot see a complex context such as public security conditions in Brazil only by one lens, we have to take into consideration other factors. For example, between 2015 and 2018, in Brazil, we were facing a very, very bloody confrontation

between two of the major drug dealing factions in Brazil. So, Comando Vermelho and PCC, Primeiro Comando da Capital, they were disputing territories around Brazil in a very, very, very violent manner. And this was responsible for a lot of deaths. We are talking about like thousands of deaths, dozens of thousands of deaths, we have seen situations such as in the homicides curve.

And from 2018 on, they began to work on an agreement that started to, well, make the homicides curve at least more stable. So, it’s not only about people having guns and defending themselves. It’s about major process, geopolitical process of crime happening in Brazil. And also, there is something to be said. Two weeks ago or three weeks ago, IPEA, a very important Brazilian institute of applied research to economics and Foro Brasileiro de Segurança Pública, they launched a report called Atlas da Violência, Violent Atlas,

that showed that in the late years, the number of homicides were enormous. So, from 2018 onwards, we had a really, really big problem of homicides, it was a lot bigger than what we were seeing. So those are some of the evidence that we can say to dispute what pro-civilian gun ownership groups are talking about as if having a gun would be considered like more safe to people.

And your study shows that in 2023, speeches defending more gun rights outnumbered those in favour of stricter controls, 3 to 1. What effect does that have on policy making?

On public opinion, I cannot clearly state. We understand that Congress is like a box of resonance of what society wants, but it also sometimes is not. But not always what’s said in Congress goes out to the public and changes people’s opinion. When we are talking about civilian gun ownership, we really think this is the case. What we have been seeing when we combined, when we compared what’s being said in Congress and what people are saying in polls, we see a big disparity. But when we talk about policy, this unbalance between pro-civilian gun ownership and pro-control groups, clearly fragilizes pro-control policies. What we see is the pro-control group that once was organized, once were able to pass one of the most modern legislation in gun control

in the world, had completely lost it. We don’t see also, for example, renewal in this group. It’s the same people that for years and years and years are saying the same stuff and they are not strong enough to help government pass what should be passed, well, at least what this administration, this executive administration, says it wants. pro-gun group is getting more organized and more loud by the time. So, they are using this team to pressure government and they are very organizedly attacking legislation

are using their seat in Congress to make the executive branch undo what they were elected to do, because this administration was elected saying very specifically it would position self pro-control. And now what we see is that the pro-control congressmen and congresswomen, they almost never take the stand to defend the executive branch. Who is actually taking the stand very loudly is the pro-civilian gun ownership group and they are using the Congress, the National Congress, to pressure the executive branch to rupture with its electoral promise and to be more flexible with policy.

Maria Isabel, thanks for joining us. Hope to speak to you again soon.

Thank you. Bye.

Maria Isabel Couto is the Programs Director at public security think tank Fogo Cruzado. She has a PhD in sociology and has been working in the field of public security research for more than a decade. If you like Explaining Brazil, please give us a five-star rating

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I’m Euan Marshall. Thanks for listening and Explaining Brazil will be back next week.

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