MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Now to Brazil, where President Jair Bolsonaro is up for reelection in October. Win or lose, Bolsonaro has already brought some major changes to Brazil. Among them is a rollback of the country's gun control laws. NPR's John Otis has more, and we want to tell you that this report contains sounds of gunshots.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).
JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: At this firing range in Rio Bonito, a town just east of Rio de Janeiro, a man applying for a gun permit is being tested on his marksmanship.
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OTIS: The shooter, Wagner Carneiro, is a former Brazilian army sergeant.
WAGNER CARNEIRO: (Non-English language spoken).
OTIS: Recently, Carneiro says, a man pointed a gun to his head and stole his mobile phone. Now he wants a gun to protect himself. Getting one in Brazil has become much easier. Since taking office in 2019, right-wing president Jair Bolsonaro has signed more than a dozen decrees loosening restrictions on gun ownership.
FABIO ZANINI: Expanding the right of the population to have arms and bear arms has been one of Bolsonaro's electoral promises from day one.
OTIS: That's Fabio Zanini, a columnist for Folha de Sao Paulo, Brazil's biggest newspaper.
ZANINI: Gun owners are one of his main electoral bases in Brazil. Bolsonaro loves to pose for pictures doing a gun sign, for example, with his fingers. That's one of his trademarks.
OTIS: There are still more regulations here than in the U.S., including mandatory psychological tests. But now private citizens can buy more powerful handguns and ammunition and in greater quantities. Collectors and competitive shooters can purchase automatic rifles like AR-15s. Since the new rules took effect, the number of guns in private hands has doubled to almost 2 million, according to Brazil's army and police. Gun stores, firing ranges and tournaments are popping up all over Brazil, including one called Schutzenfest.
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OTIS: Held in southern Brazil, where many people are of German descent, the festival is a mashup of beer-drenched Oktoberfest and shooting competitions. Some Brazilian gun enthusiasts talk about their Second Amendment rights, even though there is no constitutional right to bear arms here. Others, like Rodrigo Santoro, who's training to become a weapons instructor, don't trust the police to protect them from well-armed criminals.
RODRIGO SANTORO: The main principle is to defend yourself, your family, your home. We defend guns in the hands of the good people because the bad guys, they already have guns (laughter). You see that.
OTIS: Eduardo Bolsonaro, a Congressman and son of the president claims that looser gun regulations have helped bring down Brazil's homicide rate. Here he is speaking to Tucker Carlson of Fox News.
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EDUARDO BOLSONARO: It was the biggest drop in murders since 1980. So Brazil is safer - thanks, God - because of this policy.
OTIS: But the country's homicide rate was on its way down even before Bolsonaro took office. And in spite of this trend, their murder rate here is still three times higher than in the U.S. Cecilia Olliveira of Fogo Cruzado, a project that maps gun violence in Brazil, says that instead of promoting gun ownership, authorities should focus on reforming the police.
CECILIA OLLIVEIRA: When you talk about I have to protect myself because the police is not working, this is not right. The point is we have to make the police work in the right way.
OTIS: Mass shootings in Brazil are rare, but rising gun ownership has led to more suicides and gun accidents involving children. In addition, drug trafficking groups are recruiting civilians to legally purchase automatic rifles, which are then passed on to the criminals. That's according to Bruno Langeani of Sou da Paz, a Brazilian think tank that focuses on security.
BRUNO LANGEANI: We are seeing more and more episodes of what, in the U.S., you would call straw buyer purchase, diversion of firearms to crime.
OTIS: Ahead of October's election, polls show President Bolsonaro trailing left-wing candidate Luis Inacio Lula da Silva. He's a former president who tightened Brazil's gun laws. So the prospect that Lula could return to power has some Brazilians scurrying to apply for gun permits, says Alexandre Coelho, an instructor at the shooting range in Rio Bonito.
ALEXANDRE COELHO: Because left-wing governments don't believe in the right of self-defense.
OTIS: Among Coelho's clients is the man who was robbed at gunpoint for his cell phone and who's now finishing up his shooting test.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).
(SOUNDBITE OF GUN FIRING)
OTIS: As he examines the bullet holes in the target, Coelho is impressed.
COELHO: He did a total of 95 points.
OTIS: Oh, so he did really well.
COELHO: Really well - lost only 5 points. He's approved.
OTIS: John Otis, NPR News, Rio Bonito, Brazil.
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