Violent crime in Brazil is out of control. In 2012, the latest year for which we have widely accepted figures, the World Health Organization estimated the national homicide rate at 32 deaths per 100,000 people, one of the highest in the world. In some regions criminal depredations are especially bad; the state of Alagoas featured a homicide rate more than double the national average. But while most of Brazil’s politicians have continued to put their faith in gun control despite a total lack of evidence for its effectiveness, a quiet revolution has been taking place behind the scenes in the state and national legislatures.
As one might expect, most of Brazil’s murders are committed using firearms. A UNESCO study reckoned that over 115 people were shot to death in the nation every day in 2012, a 35-year high. Brazilians have responded to the rampant violence in various fashions. Many well-meaning but ineffectual protestors have sought to highlight the problem without solving it. Predictably, politicians have focused their efforts on gun control.
Right now Brazil should be a gun-hater’s paradise. In 2003, background checks were expanded to include not only criminal and mental health history but employment as well—and they are to be conducted on gun owners every three years. Prospective gun owners must justify in writing why they need a firearm when they first apply for a permit. A law introduced in 1999 and rewritten in 2003 established a national firearm registry to document every sale and private transfer. Since 2004, the country has been riddled with “gun-free” zones. Yet violence continues unabated.
But while most of Brazil’s politicians have continued to put their faith in gun control despite a total lack of evidence for its effectiveness, a quiet revolution has been taking place behind the scenes in the state and national legislatures. A new group of lawmakers drawn from law enforcement and the military—the men and women who have constituted the front lines in the battle against the country’s brazen criminal element—is determined to advance lawful gun ownership as a measure against crime. They are derisively known among their left-wing opponents as bancada de bala, the “bullet caucus.” And they are growing strong.
Now the so-called “bullet caucus” has fired its first shot across the bow of the anti-gun establishment. Caucus members have introduced a bill stating that citizens possess an individual right to own guns for the protection of self and property. In addition to overriding the current “good cause” requirement, it would also expand the pool of potential gun owners by lowering the age limit from 25 to 21 and striking some conditions for prohibition. “Brazil is an extremely violent country and the state has failed to resolve this problem,” says Laudivio Carvalho, the lawmaker who authored the legislation. “The population needs the right to defend themselves, their family and their property as they are the ones being attacked. Ninety percent of assaults are being carried out with illegal weapons.”
It seems clear that those who inevitably oppose the bill are not used to having to make a strong justification for gun control, given their weak replies. “Without doubt we will see an increase in the murder rate,” according to Ivan Marques, executive director of the anti-gun Sou da Paz group. “The number of deaths is directly related to the number of guns on the streets.” And lawmaker Alessandro Molon says that the law is “a statement of bankruptcy”: “We are saying, ‘thanks to our incompetence, you can defend yourselves and live in a Western because we are inept.’” Hasn’t Brazil’s exploding homicide rate already said just that? When no amount of gun control does the trick, thoughtful people must inevitably consider whether the opposite approach might be the best way to stop criminals from terrorizing the populace.
Molon’s reference to living “in a Western” is telling. While anti-gun activists at home and abroad continue to push this imagery, we know that the “Wild West” of history was hardly the violent place that they imagine—in large part because so many were armed. But Molon is right to suspect that the United States is the exemplar for what Carvalho and other supporters or gun rights are attempting. Just recently Panama embarked upon the same experiment. When no amount of gun control does the trick, thoughtful people must inevitably consider whether the opposite approach might be the best way to stop criminals from terrorizing the populace.
The draft law, which is slated for a vote in the lower house of congress this month, is a massive game-changer for a nation that has no equivalent to the Second Amendment. “Our constitution emphasizes collective security, not individual security,” says Marques—but could an increased focus on the rights of the individual be just what Brazil needs?
Another sponsor of the bill, Rogério Peninha Mendonça, supports the perspective that Brazilians always had the right to bear arms and that hand-wringing politicians have been chipping away at this innate freedom for decades. Guns are already in the hands of the enemies of law and order; they must be made available for law-abiding citizens. “I’ll tell my kids that we are recovering our rights,” he says. “We are not arming anybody.”