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RIO BONITA, Brazil — At a shooting range, a man applying for a gun permit points a gun and fires 10 shots at a human-shaped target 20 feet away. Almost all bullets hit the target in the middle of the torso.
The shooter, Wagner Carneiro, is a former sergeant in the Brazilian army. He explains that the man in the car, who was asking for directions, suddenly put a gun to his head and demanded his cell phone. Now Carneiro, 40, wants a gun for himself.
“I need this to protect my family,” he says, speaking from a training ground in the town of Rio Bonita, about 40 miles west of Rio de Janeiro.
Thanks to President Jair Bolsonaro, a right-wing populist whose hero is former President Donald Trump, it has become much easier for Brazilians like Carneiro to get their hands on guns. Since taking office in 2019, Bolsonaro has issued more than a dozen executive orders easing restrictions on civilian gun ownership.
Bolsonaro, who faces an uphill battle for re-election in October, has courted avidly Brazil’s growing gun lobby and often poses for photographs making the gun sign with his thumb and forefinger.
“Extending the right of the population to bear arms was one of Bolsonaro’s main campaign promises from day one,” says Fabio Zanini, a columnist Folia de S.Paulo, a leading Brazilian newspaper. “Gun owners are one of his main constituencies.”
Brazil still has more gun regulations than the United States, including mandatory psychological and firearm safety exams. But now private citizens can buy more powerful handguns and ammunition and in larger quantities. Collectors and competitive shooters can purchase automatic rifles.
Since 2018, the number of guns in private hands has doubled to nearly 2 million, according to data from Brazil’s army and police analyzed by the Brazilian security think tank Sou da Paz.
Gun shops and shooting tournaments are popping up all over Brazil. Among them is the massive Schützenfest, which is held in southern Brazil, where there are many people of German descent, and is a combination of beer-soaked Oktoberfest and gun shooting. Brazilian website UOL reports that during Bolsonaro’s nearly four years in office, an average of one new shooting range opened a day.
Some Brazilian gun enthusiasts are imitating their American counterparts in touting their Second Amendment rights, even though there is no constitutional right to bear arms. Others, like Rodrigo Santoro, who is training to be a gun instructor at the Rio Bonita shooting range, don’t trust the police to protect them from well-armed criminals.
“The main principle is to protect yourself, your family, your home,” he says. “We keep guns in the hands of the good guys because the bad guys already have guns.”
After President Bolsonaro, the most prominent gun advocate in Brazil is his son, Congressman Eduardo Bolsonaro. In July, he celebrated his 38th birthday with a cake decorated with a revolver. He claims that loosening gun regulations have helped lower Brazil’s homicide rate.
“It was the biggest drop in homicides … since 1980,” he told Fox News’ Tucker Carlson in June. “So Brazil is safer, thank God, thanks to this policy.”
But the country’s homicide rate was falling even before Bolsonaro took office, says Bruno Langeani, manager of Sou da Paz. And despite that trend, the homicide rate here, at more than 22 murders per 100,000 people, was still more than three times higher than the U.S. in 2020, according to World Bank data.
Cecilia Oliveira, who runs the Fogo Cruzado project that charts gun violence in Brazilian cities, says that instead of promoting gun ownership for self-defense, authorities should focus on police reform.
“If you [say]: “I have to protect myself because the police are not working,” she says. “The point is we have to make the police work properly.”
Mass shootings of civilians in Brazil are rare. But the rise in gun ownership has led to more suicides and accidents involving children, says Langheani of the Sou da Paz think tank. In addition, he says, drug-trafficking groups recruit civilians to legally buy automatic rifles, which are then passed on to criminals.
“We’re seeing more and more cases of what you might call a “straw buyer” in the U.S. — the diversion of firearms to criminal targets,” he says.
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Ahead of the October election, polls show President Bolsonaro trailing leftist candidate Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. He is a former president who tightened Brazil’s gun laws when he first took office in 2003. This law prevented ordinary citizens from purchasing guns, while the buyback program led to the return of more than 700,000 firearms. Immediately after that, the homicide rate in Brazil fell, although in 2007 it began to creep up.
So the prospect that Lula, a widely known former president, could return to power is prompting some Brazilians to rush to apply for gun permits, said Alexandre Caelho, a shooting range instructor in Rio Bonita and a fervent supporter of Bolsonaro.
“Leftist governments do not believe in the right to self-defense. They believe that the state should protect you and always will [there] protect you. This is a lie, he says. “Right-wing governments believe in the right to self-defense.”
Among his clients is Carneiro, a man who was robbed at gunpoint because of his cell phone and is currently completing a marksmanship test. As he examines the bullet holes in the target, Coelho is impressed.
“Just 95 points” out of a possible 100, he says. “He is approved.”