‘Public security is impossible’: Lula takes on Brazil’s gun owners

Sheathed hunting knives and rusted hand grenades decorate the desk of Nelson de Oliveira Júnior, owner of a shooting range in São Paulo’s west zone. From his belt, he whips out and proudly brandishes a Brazilian-made Taurus 9mm pistol.

“This government wants to take guns away from good citizens,” said the former policeman as muffled shots resound from the gallery below. Like many gun enthusiasts, De Oliveira believes legal firearms are vital to keeping Brazilians safe and is critical of a clampdown by President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s administration.

Since returning to office for a third term in January, Lula has made tightening gun controls a key pillar of his political agenda, saying the relaxation of firearms laws by previous president Jair Bolsonaro had caused “insecurity and harm to families”.

But the 77-year-old leftwing leader’s strategy risks riling Brazil’s powerful gun lobby as well as hundreds of thousands of hobbyists such as De Oliveira. On his first day in office, Lula signed a decree that sharply reduced the number and type of guns that private users can buy and own.

With further restrictions possible, Lula’s government hopes the tougher approach will help counter a surge in attacks on schools and other institutions, and also reduce violence between criminal gangs.

“It’s impossible to do public security with the number of weapons that exist today in private hands,” said justice minister Flávio Dino.

An instructor holds a basket of pistols for members entering the firing range of a Rio de Janeiro shooting club
An instructor holds a basket of pistols for members entering the firing range of a Rio de Janeiro shooting club © Dado Galdieri/Bloomberg

Lula’s administration has suspended applications for new shooting clubs and licences for recreational gun enthusiasts, such as collectors and hunters, and banned private users from carrying loaded weapons.

It has also launched a mandatory re-registration of guns owned by collectors, hunters and sports competitors bought since May 2019, when Bolsonaro signed a decree loosening several restrictions, to gauge how many are in circulation. Almost 900,000 weapons have been re-registered.

“You have more armed people in Brazil than members of the military police in Brazil, so this creates a difficulty in security,” Dino told the Financial Times. “It is also because part of these weapons are getting into the hands of gangs.”

The clampdown has been spurred in part by alarm over a surging number of attacks on schools, both with bladed weapons and guns. Experts attribute this to the simultaneous growth in online extremism — notably far-right and misogynist “incel” groups — and the availability of weapons.

A shooting victim is carried from a school in Aracruz in the Brazilian state of Espirito Santo
A shooting victim is carried from a school in Aracruz in the Brazilian state of Espirito Santo © Kadija Fernandes/AFP/Getty Images

Dennis Pacheco, a researcher at the Brazilian Public Safety Forum, said the school attacks “have many similarities with what happens in the US. We have young perpetrators who have mostly been to the schools where they perpetrate attacks. They organise themselves in social networks, in environments marked by hate speech.”

A study by São Paulo university in March identified 22 attacks on schools since 2002, 10 of which had occurred in the past 13 months. More than half involved firearms.

“If we included the failed attempts, the figure would go up staggeringly,” said Michele Prado, author of the research. Of the 36 school attacks prevented by police or other authorities in the past decade, 24 of them occurred last year, according to a recent government report.

In a sign of the heightened concern about the targeting of schools, 40 federal prosecutors this month signed an open letter, saying: “It is the result of multiple factors, including the school environment, social networks and hate speech, the cult of guns and the facilitation of access [to firearms] that was widely promoted and encouraged in the last four years.”

They added: “Today’s dreadful scenario has not emerged magically.”

During his four-year term, the far-right Bolsonaro was an outspoken champion of private gun ownership for personal protection in a country that has one of the world’s highest murder rates and where armed street robberies are common.

After he loosened regulations, weapons in private collections more than doubled to nearly 3mn, according to the Sou da Paz and Igarapé institutes. Out of a population of 208mn, the number of Brazilians authorised to own a firearm increased sevenfold to 813,000, according to army data obtained by local media.

Column chart showing number of private firearms in Brazil has surged since 2018

Supporters of the populist former army captain said that he could not be held responsible for the increase in school attacks, pointing out that the murder rate dropped during his government.

“The [former] president was very successful in reducing violence by arming the population well,” said Jorge Seif, a senator with Bolsonaro’s Liberal party and member of the bala (bullet) caucus in Congress. He notes that the annual number of homicides fell to 41,000 in 2022, from a peak of 59,000 under previous incumbent Michel Temer.

It is a sentiment echoed at the shooting range in São Paulo. Claudio Pappone, a bearded 49-year-old electrical engineer, believes the new restrictions punish legitimate gun owners while emboldening criminals.

“You can feel that security has declined [under Lula]. Criminals know that even if you have a gun, you don’t have it on your belt,” he said.

However, anti-violence campaigners dispute that the decline in murders can be attributed to Bolsonaro’s gun policies. They cite factors including state-level security measures, a shrinking youth population and truces between organised crime factions.

The firing range inside a shooting club in Rio de Janeiro
After Bolsonaro loosened regulations, weapons in private collections more than doubled to 3mn © Dado Galdieri/Bloomberg

Opinion surveys suggest gun control measures have broad public support. A study by polling group Quaest found 75 per cent of Brazilians disagree with loosening regulations on purchasing or owning arms.

Activists and researchers said Lula’s administration was already proving adept at monitoring and diagnosing the underlying reasons for gun violence, particularly involving incidents linked to rightwing or online extremism, but more needed to be done to tackle its root causes.

“Even if we manage to slow down the entry of new weapons into the country, reducing those already in circulation is quite a challenge,” said Pacheco, adding that many weapons acquired legally are likely to be sold on illegally. “We have a difficult road ahead of us,” he added.

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