Brazil’s Bolsonaro Makes a Dangerous Decision on Guns

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro ran for office vowing to reduce the country’s epidemic of violent crime. But his decree this week making it easier to buy firearms could lead to the violent deaths of hundreds or thousands more Brazilians.

Brazil is already the world’s most murderous country. A record 63,800 were murdered in 2017. Of those fatalities, some 43,000 were caused by firearms. That is almost three times as many gun-related homicides as there were the same year in the United States.

Here’s a simple fact, affirmed by worldwide research, for Bolsonaro to consider: More guns means more deaths by gun — whether by homicide, accident or suicide. A study in Brazil’s state of Sao Paulo, for instance, found that a 1 percent increase in the number of guns in circulation resulted in a 2 percent increase in the homicide rate.

Brazil currently has strict gun control laws. You have to be over 25 years of age, have no criminal record, demonstrate an “effective need” for a firearm, pass tests on psychological aptitude and gun handling, and pay a hefty fee for a license that must be renewed every five years. Partly as a result of this thicket of controls, Brazil has among Latin America’s lowest rates of civilian firearm possession (registered and unregistered), according to the 2017 Small Arms Survey, ranking well below the world’s top 25.

Critics of Brazil’s strict gun controls cite its horrific homicide rate as proof the laws don’t work. Or as Bolsonaro put it during his campaign, “All the hoodlums already have guns; it’s only the good guys who don’t.” Bolsonaro’s decree will remove the “effective need” restriction and extend the length of licenses, which won’t by itself boost gun ownership dramatically. But it’s a first step toward dismantling Brazil’s 2003 disarmament statute. That’s a goal shared by Bolsonaro and the other members of Brazil’s so-called “bullet caucus,” the nation’s largest gun manufacturer Forjas Taurus SA, and the U.S. National Rifle Association, which wants to extend its global reach. After Bolsonaro issued his decree, his chief of staff said the government wanted to invite more gun manufacturers into Brazil’s market to make guns more affordable.

What prompted Brazil’s Congress to pass the 2003 statute was a near-tripling of the country’s firearm death rate over the previous two decades. According to one World Bank study, Brazil saw an 8 percent decline in gun homicides in 2004, the first drop in 13 years. Subsequent research credits the law with achieving a 12 percent decline in homicides from 2004 to 2007.

Since then, however, the law has been plagued by spotty enforcement and the failure of Brazil’s beleaguered police to control criminal gangs, plug up the black market, and curb corruption in their own ranks. (Corrupt police selling guns have been part of the problem.) Brazil’s severe recession sapped law-enforcement resources: Contrast the spike in homicides in municipalities under great financial pressure with the declines achieved in relatively well-run states such as Sao Paulo.

Bolsonaro’s plan to put guns in the hands of more citizens appealed to some voters, no doubt — but not to most, according to a recent poll. Instead of embarking on a deadly and unwanted experiment, Bolsonaro should focus on enforcing the laws, ending the impunity that results in violent crimes going unreported and unpunished, and restoring public faith in the government that he was just elected to lead.

Editorials are written by the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.

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