Reviews | Bolsonaro’s obsessive gun policy endangers all of Brazil
“I want everyone to be armed” he reprimanded his cabinet at a 2020 reunion that turned into a viral video. Plagiarizing the National Rifle Association, he added that “an armed people will never be enslaved”.
It’s not just political theater. Bolsonaro’s call to arms threatens Brazilian security, civic harmony and perhaps democracy itself. The stakes are particularly high now, ahead of the October 2 presidential elections, the most contested since the end of military rule 37 years ago. That Bolsonaro, a cashed-in army captain who passes out for men in epaulettes, is taking every opportunity to brag about his country’s 21-year military dictatorship only heightens concerns.
Bolsonaro has militarized the government, pack your wardrobe with more old and active brass than any ruler since dictators were in charge. He deployed troops, tanks and fighter jets to celebrate Brazil independence day as if it were a martial victory. (It wasn’t.) By evangelizing assault rifles and handguns, he also seems intent on weaponizing the future. This is grim news for a country that records more than 40,000 murders a year, most of them gun-related.
Research by the Igarapé Institute think tank and other civil society organizations shows how pervasive the cult of guns has become. Accelerated by some forty pro-arms presidential decrees and standards, the number of civilian-owned small arms nearly tripled from 2018 to 2021, found Igarapé. By July, Brazil’s total cache of private arms in circulation had reached 1.9 million, according to Freedom of Information documents. These include guns in the hands of presumably well-meaning, genuinely safety-conscious civilians, but also many owners who officially say that armed good guys are the answer to crime.
Reinforcing this vanity is the decline in trust in the police and the lack of rule of law in Brazil’s crime hotspots. Perhaps nowhere are these failures more visible than in the Amazon, which has become a new frontier for the Brazilian arms race.
If arming well-meaning citizens was the solution to criminal violence, the region — where the total number of registered guns more than doubled fair from December 2018 to November 2021 – should be a haven of legality and safety. Instead, a host of evils – more guns, metastasized criminal networks and flawed governance – have turned the world’s largest rainforest into a battlefield.
Nowhere in Brazil has the rate of deadly gun violence risen so sharply, increasing by 78% in the Amazon states from 2010 to 2019, even as it dropped by 10% in the rest of the country. according to Igarapé’s review of Ministry of Health data.
In three critical border states in the Amazon, fatal shootings have increased over the same period: Acre (253%), Amapá (125%) and Amazonas (55%). It is no coincidence that these areas are also emerging as hotspots of deforestation, where uncontrolled migration, looting, land grabbing and dysfunctional governance abound.
The rise in gun-related homicides in the Amazon is just one indication that Bolsonaro and his supporters are missing the mark. Even with more citizens carrying than ever, polls show that Brazilians do not feel more secure. Less than a third of Brazilians interviewed by national pollster Quaest said they would buy a gun if given the chance. Nearly 7 in 10 said they fear being around people with guns and that wider access to guns means putting young people at risk.
No matter. Bolsonaro’s mission to spread guns, lower gun license ages and limit surveillance has only energized his gun base. It would be madness to call his bully speech bluster.
If he loses the election to former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (as voter polls suggest), don’t wait for Bolsonaro to fire or for the armed forces to stage a coup. After four years of impeccable governance and disastrous management of the pandemicneither the president nor the army have the stamp pull off such a blow.
But Bolsonaro also gave no sign that if defeated he would contain outraged loyalists. On the contrary, Donald Trump’s most dedicated Latin follower has relentlessly encouraged his supporters to beware of the polls and denounce the electoral system, all the while making sure they pack in the heat.
While a tropical version of the January 6, 2021 insurgency in the United States is unlikely, there are risks ahead. Whoever wins the elections in Brazil will govern a country facing not only food inflationdeepening poverty and hungerand one tax holebut also poisoned by partisan anger and — more than ever — armed to the teeth.