Gabriel Stargardter, Reuters
When four federal police officers came to arrest Roberto Jefferson, a close ally of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, the veteran politician made clear he was going nowhere. “Run,” he told them. “You’re going to get hurt.” The former federal lawmaker then threw three adulterated stun grenades at the police and sprayed their armored car with over 50 shots from his Smith & Wesson 5.56 mm assault-style rifle, according to his testimony and those of the arresting officers. Two cops were hospitalized with shrapnel wounds and Jefferson only surrendered after an eight-hour standoff.
The high-profile Oct. 23 shootout, just a week before Bolsonaro lost his re-election bid, underscored one of the most daunting challenges facing his leftist rival, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. The president-elect has pledged to “disarm” an increasingly gun-toting country where personal firearms have become a symbol of Bolsonaro’s conservative base.
“We see, with the case of Roberto Jefferson, how dangerous it is for civilians to have high-caliber weapons. It’s something that puts police at risk, and also society,” said Bruno Langeani, from the Sou da Paz Institute, who is informally advising Lula’s transition team. Reuters interviewed eight other people working on, or advising, Lula’s transition team on bolstering gun controls once he takes office on Jan. 1. Although their plans are not settled, they aim to revoke dozens of executive orders Bolsonaro signed to loosen gun laws, which sparked a surge in firearms ownership.
Nearly three-quarters of Brazilians opposed Bolsonaro’s weakening of gun laws, pollster Datafolha said in May.
The priority will be to reimpose civilian prohibitions on certain high-caliber weapons, including the rifle used by Jefferson, the sources said. They also plan to make it harder to get new firearms licenses, and more expensive and onerous to renew old ones. The transition team is also looking at ways to streamline opaque databases run by the army and the federal police, they said. But that’s the easy part.
There are now around 1.9 million privately owned weapons registered in Brazil, according to the Igarape and Sou da Paz institutes, up from around 695,000 in 2018 when Bolsonaro was elected. Minimizing that vast stock of firearms, many of which are owned by diehard Bolsonaro fans who loathe Lula and dispute his election victory, will be “challenging,” said Gabriel Sampaio, a transition team lawyer. The political context is a sharp departure from Lula’s 2003-2010 presidency, when he passed sweeping gun laws to combat violent crime. Those measures included a voluntary buy-back scheme that removed around 650,000 weapons from circulation.
Lula’s team is now discussing an obligatory buy-back to get assault rifles out of civilian hands and give them to security forces, transition sources said.
Sou da Paz Institute’s Langeani estimated there are between 40,000 and 70,000 legal assault rifles in civilian hands. A mandatory, competitively priced buy-back, with the government paying 15,000 reais to 20,000 reais ($2,850 - $3,800) per rifle, would remove some of the country’s most dangerous firearms, said Langeani and other Lula advisors. Nearly 700,000 Brazilians have taken advantage of Bolsonaro’s looser gun laws to register as “hunters, marksmen or collectors,” or “CACs,” and stockpile weapons. The number of CAC licences has grown almost 500% since 2018. Yet oversight of those gun-owners is miniscule. Last year, army auditors carried out 622 in-person visits to gun-owners with expired or inactive licenses, and seized under 400 weapons, according to the Brazilian Forum of Public Security. In at least 10 Brazilian states, home to around 80 million people, they carried out no visits at all.
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