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“I ALWAYS HAD the American dream,” says Bernardo Mattos, sitting outside his shooting club in Rio de Janeiro. “Thank God, I fulfilled that dream.” Since he launched his club in 2018 membership has risen steadily—particularly so during the past year of pandemic. Now around 350 people come through his doors to rattle off rounds. Mr Mattos, who says he was trained by the United States armed forces, broadcasts his views to even more. He has nearly 90,000 followers on social media. He encourages whole families to shoot together; 14-year-olds are allowed to do so if accompanied by an instructor. “I succeeded in bringing the gun ideology I saw in the United States to Brazil,” he beams.
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Brazil’s relationship with guns goes back a long way. In the 1970s gun ownership was commonplace in the countryside, where most people lived, recalls Ivan Marques, a lawyer and the chairman of Control Arms, an NGO. By the 1980s guns were ubiquitous and rules for buying them were lax. Even supermarkets sold them. But a rise in shootings triggered stricter laws. In 2003 Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, a left-wing president, signed one that prevented ordinary citizens from buying guns—only those in the armed forces, police and prison guards could do so. It also raised the minimum age and required a background check. Although this helped temper the rise in gun deaths for a while, Brazil remained a violent place, with many illegal firearms. With 22 killings per 100,000 people each year, it has one of the world’s highest rates of gun deaths.
In contrast to his predecessors Jair Bolsonaro, a former army captain elected as president in 2018, wants more people to own firearms. In his election campaign he frequently posed with weapons; when he couldn’t, he made shooting gestures with his hands. Three of his sons, who are also in politics, have posed at shooting ranges. “Allegedly they have shrines to the NRA in their homes,” quips Ilona Szabó de Carvalho of the Igarapé Institute, a think-tank.
As president, Mr Bolsonaro has tried to approve 31 legal changes that would make guns easier to get hold of. On April 12th the Supreme Court suspended two such changes—including decrees that would have increased the number of guns the armed forces, police and members of the judiciary could legally own for self-defence from four to six, and expanded even further the number of guns that could be owned by specialist hunters and collectors (who already can amass sizeable arsenals).
Despite this setback, however, Mr Bolsonaro’s gun-loving base has been emboldened. The number of registered firearms in circulation has surged by 66% since 2017, to just over a million, or one for every 200 Brazilians. This is far short of the standard set by the United States, which has more guns than people. But still, between 2017 and 2019 the number held by Brazilian hunters, sporting shooters and collectors increased by a whopping 120% (this group registered 271,000 new firearms in 2020). And unlike the United States, Brazil is a country where few animals can be shot legally, points out Mr Marques. At the moment only wild boars are fair game, as they are not an indigenous species. Brazilians can also now own different kinds of guns, and the amount of ammunition they can own has gone up (though the Supreme Court is querying these changes, too).
Shooting clubs have also multiplied. Last year more than 1,300 welcomed firearm fans, compared with just over 150 in 2019. More everyday folk are giving it a try. And that includes women, many of whom can be found at the Clube de Tiro Ponta Negra, a new place in Manaus. With 34 shooting stalls, it is the country’s largest club. “It’s incredible, the number of women who have been looking to train, join clubs, and buy guns,” gushes Monique Benetton, a 39-year-old manager who hones her aim there. Gunmakers are eager to woo female custom, some more subtly than others. On March 8th—International Womens’ Day—Taurus, Brazil’s largest gun manufacturer, launched “Strong Women”, a pink limited-edition revolver decorated with white flowers. It sold out in just three days.
Mr Bolsonaro’s pro-gun stance is mostly political. Loosening gun laws is cheap and simple. Perhaps that is why, unlike the promises he made during his campaign to improve schools and health care, Mr Bolsonaro has been able to keep his word on guns. Also, talking about pistols touches on the “identity of his core supporters”, says Rodrigo Soares, an academic. Many may have started to question Mr Bolsonaro’s handling of the coronavirus, which has killed more than 350,000 Brazilians and caused the economy to contract by 4%. His approval ratings have fallen to below 30%.
Others fear darker motives. When the heads of the army, navy and air force resigned on March 30th in protest at a cabinet reshuffle, it seemed to be a signal that they would not go along with some of Mr Bolsonaro’s anti-democratic urges. The president has spoken of “my army” and threatened to use it to prevent state governments from enforcing lockdowns. But if the armed forces can be relied on to respect the constitution, that is less clear of the police force, which is badly paid and full of bolsonaristas. Some pundits speculate that Mr Bolsonaro, who cheered on the storming of the United States Capitol on January 6th, is arming his base in preparation for 2022, when he will probably face Lula at the ballot box.
The next year or so will show whether this is hyperbole. Police officers benefit from job stability and handouts for themselves and their families, says José Vincente da Silva Filho, a retired colonel of the São Paulo state police. “They wouldn’t jeopardise these benefits to join a political adventure in distant Brasília,” he thinks.
For Mr da Silva Filho, the most worrying effect of Mr Bolsonaro’s rush to arm Brazil will be on crime. Already the statistics are bleak. Although homicide rates vary widely from one part of the country to another, they are rising overall. Last year saw 43,892 gun deaths nationwide, up from 41,730 the previous year. According to Daniel Cerqueira, an expert on guns at the Institute of Applied Economic Research, the inevitable outcome from a rise in gun culture will be “a tragedy” for Brazil—a country that, at the moment, is not short of them. ■
This article appeared in the The Americas section of the print edition under the headline "Playing with firearms"
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