'We are afraid': Brazilian women alarmed at relaxation of gun laws
A pistol is fired during a practice session at the Calibre 12 gun club in Sao Goncalo. Women’s rights campaigners in Brazil are dismayed by Jair Bolsonaro’s loosening of gun laws. Photograph: Léo Corrêa/AP
Written by Jo Griffin, The Guardian
Bolsonaro’s move allowing more people to own firearms is causing unease in a society where domestic violence is rife
A pledge to make it easier for “good citizens” to buy guns for self-defence helped sweep Jair Bolsonaro to power. But there is alarm that the Brazilian president’s decree loosening firearms laws will make pervasive violence against women even worse – and more deadly.
“I believe this is a very negative measure that will lead more women to be threatened by violence,” said Maria da Penha, the women’s rights activist whose case changed Brazil’s domestic violence laws. “This decree should be reviewed.”
In a country plagued by public insecurity, Da Penha’s story is widely known. In May 1983, she was asleep at her home in Fortaleza when her husband shot her in the back, leaving her paralysed. When she returned from hospital four months later, he was still free – and attempted to murder her again, this time by electrocution in the shower. Her fight for justice eventually led to the Maria da Penha law, which set up specialised courts and police stations, and ushered in protective measures like restraining orders.
Despite this and other robust laws to protect women, domestic violence in Brazil is rampant. Allowing people with no criminal record to keep up to four guns at home will make such violence more murderous, say campaigners, who point out that half of all murders of women in 2016 involved a firearm. In 2017, 4,539 women were murdered, a rise of 6.1% on the year before, according to the Brazilian Forum on Public Security. Rape also rose 8%, to 60,018. Since the decree, domestic violence survivors have been using the hashtag #SeEleEstivesseArmado (“If he had been armed”) to express the belief that, had their attacker had access to a gun, they would be dead.
“My ex found it normal to pursue me 200km into a different state, invade my house, harass and threaten me,” says one. “That day, every time he reached in his rucksack, I thought he was going to grab a gun. If he had been armed, I would be dead.”
Another tweet reads: “For many of us who experienced an abusive relationship, that question that lingers in the mind is: what if he had come back with a weapon?”
'A child is killed daily': saving lives in Brazil's deadliest city for adolescents. We live in a society colonised by fear,” says Debora Diniz, professor of anthropology at the University of Brasilia, explaining the appeal of Bolsonaro’s stance on gun ownership to women who voted for him in November and others who back the decree. “We are afraid of walking the streets and are looking for easy solutions.”
Diniz warned that, imported into a macho society like Brazil, a US-style political understanding that an individual has a right to protect their private property is problematic for women, who might be regarded as part of that property.
“A gun is an object of desire for men. Gender comes into the politics of weapons, for those who aspire to own them and those who use them to kill,” Diniz wrote in El Pais, arguing that weapons policy must be sensitive to a country’s gender norms. “Femicide is a word invented in Latin America. We are the region of the world where more women die at the hands of their husbands, boyfriends, fathers and sons.
“If today there are cases where women survive attempted femicide, it is in large part because the instrument of violence was physical force or other instruments that are less lethal, like knives or ropes. In cases where guns are used, the chances of a woman surviving are much rarer.”
The gun policy debate goes to the heart of divisions in Brazil as the country adapts to a new president. While many revile Bolsonaro for his expressions of misogyny and homophobia, his toughness on crime resonates with women panicked by what has become a violent crime epidemic.
Pictured draped in a Brazilian flag, a revolver protruding from her jeans, São Paulo state deputy Leticia Aguiar is among high-profile supporters. She argues that women have been “the main victims” of a previous policy of civilian disarmament.
“An unprotected woman is an easy target for rape. A woman who is armed is prepared for daily life and, in my view, can even be considered more of a citizen in favour of social order,” says Aguiar, the self-described “adoptive daughter” of Bolsonaro. That view is not echoed by the public defenders who have issued statements warning the decree will increase the risk of femicide. The public defender of São Paulo has formulated a protective measure that suspends the possession of weapons by anyone with a history of domestic and family violence, in accordance with the Maria da Penha law.
Some point out that laws making it easier to own a gun wouldn’t help poorer women to protect themselves, since they couldn’t afford to buy one anyway.
In communities where violence is already rife, the idea of introducing more weapons is widely seen as sheer madness. Women in such areas are disproportionately affected by gun violence, not just from drug trafficking gangs but also from military police during operations.
Get Society Weekly: the newsletter for public service professionals says “Making it easier to get guns is really bad, because we are already living in a civil war,” confirms *Jenifer Rodriguez, who lives in a favela in Duque de Caxias near Rio de Janeiro. “This week I was awoken with a gun to my head because the police came into the favela and they had a key to open all our doors. It was terrible, they kept me there answering questions for two hours and confiscated my phone. These days I say that when I leave the house I don’t know if I am going to return home alive.”
Education is the weapon to protect women from violence, not guns, says Da Penha. “Only education from an early age can dismantle the culture of machismo and homophobia. We need to mobilise women against this mindset.”
*Name changed to protect identity