SÃO PAULO, Brazil – A long-time political promise of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro to liberalize the country’s gun laws is being opposed by the country’s Catholic bishops.
On May 7, Bolsonaro issued a decree that loosens several licensing restrictions for people who want to carry firearms. The previous legislation established that only members of the security forces and a few related activities – such as officials of the judiciary system – were allowed to possess and carry guns.
Now, the number of professional categories encompassed by the decree is much larger, including truck drivers, crime journalists, and any politician holding office. Also included are people over 25 who live in the countryside. Bolsonaro’s measure means that now almost 20 million people would be allowed to carry firearms in Brazil – about 10 percent of the population.
“If President Bolsonaro continues to pursue such a death-loving agenda, the Catholic Church will oppose him again and again. The main inspiration of the Church was someone who was murdered. It’s not a personal antagonism, but a necessary stand against his project,” said Fernando Altemeyer, a Religious Studies professor at the Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo.
A retired Army captain, Bolsonaro gained fame during his almost 30 years in congress as a conservative, pro-gun politician. His 2018 campaign style and rhetoric were reminiscent of U.S. President Donald Trump, who Bolsonaro unabashedly admires.
In his presidential campaign, the relaxation of restrictive gun laws was one of his main proposals. In a country with more than 50,000 homicides a year, many people believe that easier access to guns means more protection.
Meeting during the first 10 days of May, the Brazilian bishops released a public letter addressing the most pressing themes related to the ongoing crisis in the country, including Bolsonaro’s gun policies.
“Violence reaches unbearable levels. […] Femicide, the underworld of prisons and the criminalization of those who advocate for the human rights require vigorous actions in favor of life and human dignity. The true disciple of Jesus will always find in love, in dialogue and in reconciliation the effective way to deal with violence and the lack of safety, inspired by the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill,’ and not in projects that loosen the legislation on the possession and carrying of firearms,” read the NCBB’s letter.
The document also criticized other elements of Bolsonaro’s administration, such as the privatization of indigenous lands and the “perverse and exacerbated liberalism,” which reduces the state “almost to the point of extinguishing it.”
Since Bolsonaro assumed power, he has taken several measures to please his base, despite receiving criticism by large sectors of society. His new decree, for instance, allows landowners – a segment that showed huge support for him during campaign – to carry guns throughout their entire property. Until then, the use was restricted to inside their homes.
“He’s arming those who are already armed – the landowners, who always employed every kind of gun against the workers,” said Father Antonio Naves, one of the coordinators of the Pastoral Commission of Land in the State of São Paulo, an organ of the National Conference of the Bishops of Brazil (NCBB) that deals with land reform and the needs of landless peasants and small growers. “This legislation is criminal. It’s an antidemocratic disaster. For its principles, the Catholic Church totally repudiates this measure.”
Married to an Evangelical Protestant wife and greatly supported by several non-Catholic Christian denominations, Bolsonaro is a Catholic.
“After the Second World War, no Christian denomination – as a matter of fact, no major religion – would make a defense of weapons. Wars and firearms offend the sacred scriptures – they aren’t biblically justifiable, for instance. In the case of Bolsonaro, it’s much more about ideological and financial interests,” said Altemeyer.
Many people argue the liberalization of the gun laws is just a distraction from the failures of the administration. The unemployment rate is high – 12.4 percent – and Bolsonaro wasn’t able to get many of his campaign promises through Brazil’s Congress, particularly on pension reform.
“People know that weapons won’t solve anything. And more: they’re too expensive and unemployed people won’t be able to buy them. It’s a big fallacy,” Altemeyer added.
Since the decree was issued, several public intellectuals, non-governmental organizations and legal experts have questioned its legitimacy.
“I’ve been talking against this violent measure in all the Masses I have celebrated in the past few days. We’ll also collect signatures, organize debates and seminars. The Church must help the people to understand the meanness of this legislation and its nefarious consequences,” Naves said.
However, there is hope that the president’s gun liberalization will be short-lived. On Friday, a Brazilian supreme court judge gave Bolsonaro and his Justice Ministry until the end of this week to respond to accusations that his decree was unconstitutional.