Brazil may provide answers in global gun control debate
Jair Bolsonaro, a retired army officer and long-time politician, last week took office as the new president of Brazil — the largest country in South America, with almost half of the continent’s population. It is also experiencing the worst homicide epidemic in the world, with almost 64,000 murders in 2017.
An average of 175 murders a day is not acceptable in a modern, civilized society, so Bolsonaro and his conservative Social Liberal Party have proposed what seems like a radical idea in Brazil: They want more guns. They believe that, if responsible, law-abiding citizens are armed with their own weapons, criminals will think twice before robbing, raping and attacking. Bolsonaro’s plan is to loosen restrictions that have previously made it difficult for Brazilians to obtain guns.
Under a 15-year-old law, Brazilians seeking to own a gun had to prove employment and be at least 25 years old. Also, anyone with a criminal history was prohibited from gun ownership. However, these laws did not prevent criminals from getting weapons. Bolsonaro’s proposal is set to provide the best real-world experiment to determine whether gun ownership or gun prohibition is better for a society struggling with gun violence.
When it comes to private and individual ownership of guns, different countries have very different histories and cultures. Australia, with its expansive and mostly empty outback, was a land that called for individual gun ownership for a long time. Until 1948, Australia had fewer than one person for every square kilometer. It now has more than three, with more than half of them living in just four cities. There was a time when Australians needed guns to defend themselves and their property. Today, it has some of the strictest gun laws.
To obtain a gun in Australia, one cannot be a felon, and one must obtain a license that needs to be renewed every three to five years. The most significant restriction is the requirement for applicants to demonstrate a need for owning a weapon. Self-defense is not considered a legitimate reason, so applicants must show that they need the gun for sport (target shooting, for example) or as security guards. Polls show that Australians — who now live mostly in urban areas — are satisfied with the gun laws.
Switzerland is another country worth comparing with to analyze Bolsonaro’s plan. Switzerland has a long history of shooting for sport, hunting, and a strong citizen army. As a result, many Swiss desire to have guns for personal use, and Swiss men are generally well trained with their military weapons. As a result, there is almost one privately-owned gun for every three Swiss people. It is relatively easy for Swiss adults to obtain guns if they have not been convicted of violent crimes, though it is difficult to obtain permission to carry a concealed weapon in public. Moreover, Swiss men are able to keep their military service weapons after completing their service. Nevertheless, in 2016, Switzerland only saw one homicide for every 200,000 people (compared to three for every 10,000 in Brazil).
When it comes to private and individual ownership of guns, different countries have very different histories and cultures.
Ellen R. Wald
Then there is the US. Many people have compared Bolsonaro to President Donald Trump. They are both seen as conservative, brash and eager to shake up the establishment. Trump is also a supporter of gun ownership — he has said he had a permit to carry a concealed handgun when he was just a famous, private real estate developer in New York. However, Trump has mostly stayed away from the controversial issue of gun ownership.
The US Constitution enshrines the right of Americans to “keep and bear arms,” but the interpretation of that legal clause has been disputed for decades. In recent decisions, the courts have said that Americans do have a right to gun ownership, but the government does have the power to make some restrictions. There are almost 400 million privately owned guns in the US — more guns than people.
Under President Bill Clinton in the 1990s, a law prohibited for 10 years the sale of what were termed assault weapons, meaning certain semi-automatic guns. The ban was controversial, and there were dozens of studies and assessments of its efficacy. The predominant conclusion was that, if there was any decrease in crime attributed to the ban, it was quite minor.
In the US, gun rights are seen as sacrosanct, as the Constitution states, but there are also various cultural and historical aspects. These include the sporting and hunting aspect, the history of pioneers who used guns to find food and defend themselves in the wild, and the history of Revolutionary Americans, who used their own weapons to throw off British tyranny almost two-and-a-half centuries ago. In America, guns will not go away, but the people never stop debating whether fewer or more guns may be a key to decreasing crime, particularly in the wake of mass shootings.
Since the strict laws were first enacted in Australia in 1996, there have been dozens of studies evaluating their efficacy. Most of the studies concluded that the gun laws contributed to a drop in crime. Now Brazil may provide an opportunity to analyze a different tactic in the fight against crime. What if Brazilians begin buying guns and crime decreases? It might indicate that private ownership of guns is a good thing. But, if crime increases, it would be the best argument to decrease gun ownership globally. There is no doubt that, if the new Brazilian president follows through with his radical proposal, the world will be watching and waiting.
• Ellen R. Wald, Ph.D. is a historian and author of “Saudi, Inc.” She is the president of Transversal Consulting and also teaches Middle East history and policy at Jacksonville University. Twitter: @EnergzdEconomy