SAO PAULO (AP) – Katia Sastre was taking her 7-year-old son to class in Suzano, a violent city near Sao Paulo, when she saw a young man point a gun at other parents standing by the front door of the school .
In a matter of seconds, she pulled out the special .38 she carried in her purse.
Three shots from the off-duty police officer killed the assailant that morning in May 2018 and began his transformation into a beacon for champions of looser gun control. Security camera footage produced medals, social media star power and a run in Congress on the same conservative wave that brought pro-gun lawmaker Jair Bolsonaro from the periphery to the presidency.
Now that she is a legislator herself, she supports Bolsonaro’s push to hand over a gun to every Brazilian who wants one, and dismisses the concerns of public security experts about the four gun decrees recently issued by the president. They will go into effect next month, unless Congress or the courts intervene.
“Brazilians want guarantees for self-defense because they feel insecure about crime,” Sastre told The Associated Press, blaming a 2003 disarmament law for increased violence and more than 65,000 violent deaths in Brazil in 2017. “The weapons used in those murders weren’t in the hands of the citizens; they came illegally from traffickers and criminals ”.
Sastre is in the minority of Brazilians, nearly three-quarters of whom want stricter gun laws, according to the most recent survey.. Yet the unpopular proposal is among Bolsonaro’s top priorities for deploying his recently resupplied political capital, even at the worst moments of the pandemic in Brazil, with around 1,800 people dying every day.
Anti-gun activists, a former defense minister and former senior police officers, including a former secretary of national public security, warn that the decrees will only add to the body count.
The two most controversial decrees would increase the number of weapons that average Brazilians can own, to six, from four today, and allow them to carry two simultaneously. The police, the president’s main supporters, could have eight firearms if the decrees are upheld.
Ilona Szabó, director of the Igarape Institute focused on security in Rio de Janeiro, has rejected Bolsonaro’s attempts to bring more weapons to Brazilians. Nominated for a national security council, she faced a barrage of threats from Bolsonaro devotees and had to flee the country. From abroad, he is urging legislators and the country’s Supreme Court to repeal the measures.
Court judges are expected to rule in a few weeks on the first of at least 10 challenges to the decrees.
“There is no technical justification for these decrees; it is evident that they make policing difficult and could end up favoring criminal organizations, ”said Szabó.
The number of deaths from shooting increased by 6% annually from 1980 to 2003, when the disarmament law was passed. After that, the rate fell to 0.9% until 2018, when it was fully implemented, according to the Atlas of Violence from the government research institute IPEA. That shows that fewer guns translates to fewer deaths, Szabó said.
And while homicides rose in the years leading up to 2017, they plummeted in 2018, before any move to loosen gun control.
Bolsonaro’s pro-gun stance was a trademark of his seven terms as a legislator. In July 2018, he shocked opponents by teaching a young boy how to make the finger gun sign that came to represent his presidential campaign.
When he took office in January 2019, a person could own two weapons, but had to undergo an onerous process of checking criminal background, employment, psychological and physical status, and also write a statement explaining the need for a weapon.
The May 2019 decrees allowed rural owners to carry guns across their properties, increase annual ammunition allocations, and allow registered shooters and hunters to transport guns from their homes to shooting ranges.
Last month, Igarape and the Sou da Paz Institute, which investigates the violence, said there were nearly 1.2 million legal weapons in the hands of Brazilians, 65% more than the month before Bolsonaro’s term began.
Bolsonaro, a former army captain who expresses nostalgia for Brazil’s three decades of military rule, has said he wants to arm citizens to prevent it from taking over a dictatorship. It has suggested that armed citizens could counter local government activity restrictions during the pandemic.
“An armed population will end this game of everyone staying home,” the president said on Christmas Eve.
The decrees also empower local councils of psychologists to grant firing range members permission to possess weapons, rather than experts chosen by the Brazilian Federal Police. And they wrest control from the Army over sales of multi-caliber bullets, making them more difficult to track, and increasing annual ammunition allocations by up to five times.
These are welcome prospects for people like Eduardo Barzana, president of a shooting club in Americana, a city in the countryside of the state of Sao Paulo. Before a practice session, as he pulled out semi-automatic assault rifles and readied his goggles, he explained why he applauds Bolsonaro’s moves to loosen the controls.
“Guns are like mobile phones; it is the person behind them that matters, ”said Barzana. “What the government is doing is benefiting our sport and giving average citizens the right to defend themselves.”
Former public security secretary José Vicente da Silva acknowledges that the decrees would help responsible owners, but says they will also make it easier for guns to fall into the wrong hands. A month after Sastre took office as a legislator, students at the school she once attended were targeted in a shooting; the attackers used weapons purchased online.
“Nobody needs six or eight guns to protect themselves, and there is no obvious reason to give so many guns to shooters and hunters,” said da Silva, who retired from the Sao Paulo state police after three decades of service. “The decrees make it almost impossible for the police to trace bullets or weapons. If this continues, we will have arsenal of weapons, many of which are bought by organized crime. ”
Some analysts have expressed fear that riots on the U.S. Capitol in January could inspire an armed uprising by Bolsonaro supporters if he fails to win a second term in next year’s election.
Bolsonaro’s lawmaker’s son Eduardo, a staunch gun rights colleague and former federal police officer, visited the White House on the eve of the riots. He later denied any link to the invasion.
On March 8, Eduardo Bolsonaro told the newspaper O Estado de S.Paulo during a visit to Jerusalem that if the rioters in the United States had organized, they would have been able to take over the Capitol and make their demands heard, and have “a minimum of power bellicoso ”to avoid casualties on his side. In 2018, he said it would take only two soldiers to close the Supreme Court.
Statements like these make Szabó de Igarape and other analysts warn that the risks for Brazilian democracy are higher than in the United States.
“This rhetoric of politicization of the issue, in which the president says he will arm citizens against lockdowns or electoral fraud is the model of Trump,” said Szabo. “We saw what happened in the invasion of the Capitol, with deaths. It could have been worse.”
In the US, gun sales hit an all-time high in January after the riots and continued the record rise that began when the pandemic took hold. Gun sales often spike during election years amid concerns that a new administration could change gun laws. US President Joe Biden has supported gun control measures such as a ban on “assault weapons.”
In Brazil, both the Speaker of the House and the Speaker of the Senate won their positions last month with the backing of Bolsonaro. Congressional analysts say neither man is likely to cross paths with the president on an issue his base holds so dear. The opposition is not strong enough to obtain the necessary votes to annul the decrees.
Caravans of Bolsonaro supporters marched through the streets of major cities on Sunday. Images that went viral on social media showed some with guns near their car windows.
“We are operating beyond public safety here; this is the realm of politics, which is really serious, “said Raúl Jungmann, former Minister of Defense and Public Security. “Arming populations is always done at the service of coups, massacres, genocides and dictatorships.”