Dispatch

The view from the ground.

Bolsonaro’s Pro-Gun Agenda May Become Law

A divisive bill represents a watershed moment for the gun debate in Brazil.

By , a Brazilian journalist currently based in São Paulo.
A man holds two posters shaped like gun in a crowd of people holding Brazil flags in support of Bolsonaro.
A man holds two posters shaped like gun in a crowd of people holding Brazil flags in support of Bolsonaro.
A man holds two posters shaped like guns during a pro-gun demonstration in support of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro in Brasília, Brazil, on July 9, 2021. Sergio Lima/AFP via Getty Images

SÃO PAULO—Even if Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro isn’t reelected this October, the impact of his gun policies may live on long past his current term. A divisive bill that would loosen the country’s gun control measures, and thus effectively increase civilian firearm ownership, is one step away from being voted on in the Federal Senate—and comes amid radical pro-gun groups importing, in a sense, the U.S. idea of the Second Amendment, even though there are no parallels in Brazil’s constitution.

The bill represents a watershed moment for Brazil’s gun debate. Until now, Bolsonaro has made guns more accessible to civilians through presidential decrees that do not depend on the National Congress’s approval—ones that could be reversed by future administrations. Experts warn that if approved, this bill will legally formalize all the excesses in Bolsonaro’s gun agenda. And it’s moving forward at an uncommon speed, as government allies and pro-gun legislators try to approve it in early February before a potential Supreme Court decision can annul Bolsonaro’s decrees.

Bolsonaro’s administration first proposed the bill in June 2019, just six months after he took office. The bill would build on Bolsonaro’s decrees by, among other things, eliminating requirements to mark ammunition for tracking and have identification devices for firearms, including those used by security forces; defining hunting, sports shooting, and collecting activities as a “right of every Brazilian citizen”; decreasing oversight for gun owners; legalizing homemade ammunition refills; and pre-authorizing more than 500,000 civilians to buy at least 16 weapons, including six restricted calibers, as well as carry loaded weapons.

SÃO PAULO—Even if Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro isn’t reelected this October, the impact of his gun policies may live on long past his current term. A divisive bill that would loosen the country’s gun control measures, and thus effectively increase civilian firearm ownership, is one step away from being voted on in the Federal Senate—and comes amid radical pro-gun groups importing, in a sense, the U.S. idea of the Second Amendment, even though there are no parallels in Brazil’s constitution.

The bill represents a watershed moment for Brazil’s gun debate. Until now, Bolsonaro has made guns more accessible to civilians through presidential decrees that do not depend on the National Congress’s approval—ones that could be reversed by future administrations. Experts warn that if approved, this bill will legally formalize all the excesses in Bolsonaro’s gun agenda. And it’s moving forward at an uncommon speed, as government allies and pro-gun legislators try to approve it in early February before a potential Supreme Court decision can annul Bolsonaro’s decrees.

Bolsonaro’s administration first proposed the bill in June 2019, just six months after he took office. The bill would build on Bolsonaro’s decrees by, among other things, eliminating requirements to mark ammunition for tracking and have identification devices for firearms, including those used by security forces; defining hunting, sports shooting, and collecting activities as a “right of every Brazilian citizen”; decreasing oversight for gun owners; legalizing homemade ammunition refills; and pre-authorizing more than 500,000 civilians to buy at least 16 weapons, including six restricted calibers, as well as carry loaded weapons.

The bill was shelved for more than two years after being approved in the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of Brazil’s National Congress. Then, in late 2021, it was put back on the Federal Senate’s agenda by Bolsonaro ally Sen. Marcos do Val. The text is currently in the Senate’s Constitution and Justice Commission—which should, in theory, ensure the propositions are constitutional—where it’s possibly one step away from being voted on. Before the National Congress stopped for the holidays, the commission’s members agreed to prioritize the bill in early February, and many expect it to be addressed this week. Whether the bill will pass is unclear—at this point, it could go either way.

If approved by the Senate, the legislation will virtually erase gains made by the country in the Disarmament Statute, a watershed 2003 law that regulates civilian gun ownership and led to the return of more than 700,000 firearms to the state. This comprehensive law sought to control weapons owned by both civilians and security forces by establishing appropriate control and license-granting institutions, limiting who could access certain firearms, and building databases and mechanisms for tracing and tracking.

Ever since the Disarmament Statute was passed during former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s first term, representatives in Congress tied to the gun lobby have tried to reverse the legislation, without much success—until Bolsonaro took office. Now, nearly 52 percent of legislators are members of the “bullet caucus,” as this group is popularly known, and they just might be able to push the new legislation through.


Relaxing gun control has long been a key platform of Bolsonaro’s. Although 72 percent of Brazilians don’t approve of his plans to arm civilians, according to a 2021 Datafolha opinion poll, Bolsonaro has a key constituency to woo: collectors, shooters, and hunters (CAC), the group of at least 515,253 civilians who can legally possess firearms, forming one of Bolsonaro’s most loyal support bases.

Applying for a CAC license is one of two ways to obtain a firearm in Brazil. The application, which goes through the army, requires individuals to be associated with a shooting club, demonstrate technical capabilities, and provide a psychological assessment and clean criminal record. After obtaining the license, individuals can apply for authorization to purchase either domestic or imported weapons. The other route is to apply for weapons ownership for personal defense through the Federal Police. But this license only allows individuals to own firearms, not carry them outside their homes. CACs, meanwhile, can carry loaded weapons while in transit between clubs, competition venues, and their homes.

Bolsonaro has loosened gun regulations for all civilians, but so far, his measures have especially benefitted CACs. During his three years in office, Bolsonaro’s more than 30 decrees on guns have, among other things, authorized CACs to purchase more—and more powerful—firearms, including those once restricted to law enforcement. Meanwhile, the number of Brazilians with active CAC licenses increased by more than 100,000 from the end of 2019 to February 2022, partly due to decrees making it easier to obtain a gun license through the Brazilian Army than through the Federal Police.

But that doesn’t mean guns owned by CACs are all for sport—some seek CAC licenses for protection, exploiting a loophole in the current system, where applicants don’t have to provide justification for wanting firearms. Some shooting clubs even advertise classes and training to teach CACs to defend themselves in robberies. With little oversight of clubs and shooters under Bolsonaro’s administration, this has become more common.

Although it is hard to say precisely why CACs are so important to Bolsonaro, Carolina Botelho, a political scientist at the State University of Rio de Janeiro, believes there are two plausible and related explanations. First, it’s a way for Bolsonaro to stay true to his original base, as he’s put forth a pro-gun agenda for his entire political career.

The other reason might be sheer calculation. According to Botelho, Bolsonaro has rejected traditional coalition campaigning, which entails negotiations and agreements with other parties ahead of elections. “He’s no longer counting on winning the election at the offset. He’s counting on scoring points with this group,” Botelho said. “And this has always been his calculation, to keep these radicalized groups united because these people can take him to the second round [of voting].”

Yet Bolsonaro knows his gun policies—which are essential to consolidating this niche base—may not last without legislation. The Supreme Court is currently analyzing many of his decrees and may find they are unconstitutional. Last April, Justice Rosa Weber suspended parts of four such decrees. The court is currently voting on whether to uphold her decision—which it’s likely to do—but the judgment was suspended in October 2021 when Justice Nunes Marques, one of Bolsonaro’s appointees to the court and a CAC himself, requested more time.

As Melina Risso, the research director at Brazil-based think tank Igarapé Institute, pointed out, Brazil’s constitution guarantees a right to safety but not to gun ownership, and those who support the bill—similar to the decrees—are trying to “bend the constitutional process.”

That’s why government allies in the National Congress are rushing to get the bill approved, hoping to codify and expand on Bolsonaro’s decrees, which Brazil’s Supreme Court could eventually reverse.


The bill comes with serious security concerns for Brazil’s society. “We are speaking of hundreds of thousands of people being allowed to carry loaded weapons around,” said Natália Pollachi, a project manager at Sou da Paz Institute. “This is a huge risk for public security.”

The bill also threatens current control mechanisms for weapons and ammunition. If approved, it would eliminate mandatory identification, such as serial and batch numbers, on weapons and bullets, including for law enforcement agencies. “We know how crucial this is to solve crimes. We have many emblematic cases that were solved by pulling on this thread. And it is especially important to control public institutions’ stockpiles,” Pollachi said.

Such mechanisms allowed investigators, for instance, to trace back ammunition used to murder Rio de Janeiro councilwoman Marielle Franco and her driver, Anderson Gomes, in March 2018 to a batch purchased by the Federal Police. The following year, two former police officers were arrested and charged with her murder (though the investigation into those who ordered the execution is still ongoing).

Another concern on observers’ minds is the potential for an insurrection like the Jan. 6, 2021, U.S. Capitol riot should Bolsonaro lose the election this October, which is a real possibility, according to current polling.

Bolsonaro has previously been vocal about his belief in using weapons for political ends. A video released by the Supreme Court of a cabinet meeting in April 2020 showed Bolsonaro telling his ministers he wanted ​​“everyone armed,” since “armed people will never be enslaved,” in reaction to governors imposing lockdown measures around Brazil.

Radical pro-gun groups have started talking about guns in ways that mirror gun rights advocates in the United States.

These sentiments resonate with a more radicalized wing of CACs. In June 2020, police found illegal firearms at the headquarters of the “Brazil 300,” a pro-Bolsonaro group of unknown size with an anti-democratic agenda of getting rid of the National Congress and Supreme Court that the Public Prosecutor’s Office deemed a “militia.” Brazil 300 leader Sara Giromini, who is currently under arrest, told BBC Brasil that there were guns at the Brazil 300’s headquarters because some of the group’s members were CACs.

According to experts, radical pro-gun groups, including the Brazil 300 and the Defense Institute, have started talking about guns in ways that mirror gun rights advocates in the United States. “We have seen throughout these years that when some people speak of ‘the defense of their freedom,’ they want to use firearms for their personal desires, regardless of any rules,” Risso said.

Marcos Pollon, leader of the Proarmas movement, an advocacy group that promotes shooting courses and organizes pro-gun demonstrations, even spoke at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Brasília, Brazil, last September. (CPAC first branched out to Brazil in 2019, and in 2021, it was organized by an institute founded by federal deputy Eduardo Bolsonaro, who is Jair Bolsonaro’s son.) Pollon sees his group as the Brazilian version of the U.S.-based National Rifle Association and believes it has the potential to become just as powerful.

“When one buys a gun, they make the irrevocable decision of no longer being the victim,” Pollon said in his presentation. “We must react,” he urged, to both Lula, who is set to run again in this year’s election as Bolsonaro’s primary opponent, and “the court that is trying to destroy the country.”

Although it is impossible to predict if Brazil will see an event that mirrors the U.S. Capitol insurrection—or is even more violent—experts believe the potential risk is far too big to be ignored.

Despite being a minority within Bolsonaro’s supporter base, radical pro-arms groups clearly have access to powerful weapons. “These groups are not the majority and much less an armed majority,” Botelho said. “We have to see, within the radical Bolsonarist groups—estimated around 12 percent to 15 percent of his base—how many are armed and willing to do something.”

“Even still,” she added, “it is irresponsible not to flag that this produces conditions for a catastrophic reality.”

Laís Martins is a Brazilian journalist currently based in São Paulo, where she reports for Brazilian and international news outlets. She has a master’s in political communication from the University of Amsterdam and is a Pulitzer Center Persephone Miel fellow.

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