Today, Brazil is the highest ranked country in the world for homicides and murders by firearm and fifth for female homicides. Black women fall victim particularly often to gun murders: In 2016, 66% of all women killed by a firearm were of color.
While Brazil’s militarized approach to public security has systemically contributed to civilian victimization in armed operations, justified through an “us or them” war rhetoric in the combatting of drug traffic, the Bolsonaro administration has introduced several modifications to the current public security policy which have the capacity to take the already alarming levels of violence against black women and favela residents to a new record level.
These measures boil down to two significant changes in the current legislation: the flexibilization of the legal requirements for purchasing and carrying firearms, implemented through two presidential decrees, and the relaxation of the penalties for excesses committed by security agents, presented in the context of a measure package for public security and currently in progress in the Brazilian Congress.
The Flexibilization of Firearm Legislation
The relaxation of the gun legislation was one of the main pillars of Bolsonaro’s rhetoric during his election campaign. As one of his first acts in office, Bolsonaro established per presidential decree that adult citizens are now allowed to acquire up to four firearms, as long as they are older than 25 years, legally employed, have no outstanding criminal prosecutions or have been convicted, have a fixed residence and have a technical and psychological capacity to use the weapon.
With the new decree from 7 May, not only the requirements for the acquisition, but also for the carrying of weapons were relaxed. According to the new text, not only arms collectors, sport shooters and hunters, but also lawyers, truck drivers and elected politicians – from municipal councilors to the president – are exempted from proving their necessity for carrying a weapon, and are allowed to carry a loaded weapon while exercising their profession.
The Anti-Crime Package
In addition to the changes in the gun legislation, Justice Minister Sérgio Moro presented a so-called “anti-crime” law package in February, with proposals for changes in 14 laws related to issues of public security and criminal enforcement. Currently in progress in the Brazilian Congress, the new proposals include modifications for the penalization of so-called “excesses in self-defense”, containing the potential to enhance immunity over police killings and violence.
The current legislation understands self-defense as the possibility for the use of force in order to “repel unjust aggression, current or imminent”. According to the new proposal, any security agent who “prevents unjust and imminent aggression at his or her right, in armed conflict or at imminent risk of armed conflict” is acting in self-defense. This formulation would allow the judge not only to relax penalties for excesses committed in armed operations, but could even enhance impunity over police killings.
Black, Poor, and “From the Favela”
While the new security policy of the Bolsonaro administration represents a danger for women’s lives in general, it can be expected that it will most likely expose those women to violence who already represent the largest share of gun related deaths and police abuse today: black women and favela residents.
Between 2006 and 2016, more than 60% of all women murdered by the use of a firearm were black. While the share of white women killed by a firearm has decreased since the year 2003, the proportion has only risen among their black counterparts in the same time frame.
By relaxing both the acquisition and carrying of firearms, the new legislation could potentially contribute to an increase in homicides: According to a study by economist Daniel Cerqueira of the Institute of Applied Economic Research (Ipea), for every 1% more weapons in circulation in society, a 2% increase in homicides has been detected.
Besides the expected impact of the new gun legislation on homicide rates, the government’s anti-crime package has the potential to enhance impunity over police killings and violence, as well as to incentivize violence against women in the context of armed operations.
While black men under 30 represent by far the largest share of killings by police and military forces, state violence directed against women often takes the form of sexual harassment and abuse.
A study carried out by the Office of the Public Defenders of the State of Rio de Janeiro found out that women and girls were raped and molested by state forces during the Military Intervention in 2018. The investigators even found evidence of the use of sexual violence as a measure of retaliation: state agents raped the partners of drug traffickers instead of arresting them. As victims typically refrain from denouncing the abuse due to fear of repression and social stigma, acts of sexual violence in the context of police and military operations are mostly undocumented and uninvestigated, representing the hidden wounds of the militarized approach to public security in Brazil.
Jair Bolsonaro’s new security measures do not only refrain from prioritizing the protection of women, but indeed carry the potential of endangering the lives of the most marginalized more than they are already. As long as the recognition and protection of their rights, bodily integrity and human dignity is not made a prerogative of state intervention, the Brazilian security policy will remain what it is now: a dispositive for the control, and not protection, of marginalized women.