Author’s Note, August 5, 2019: I originally sent this essay on March 31, 2018 as an issue of my newsletter. I’m republishing it here in the wake of the mass shootings in Gilroy, CA, El Paso, TX and Dayton OH. In response to the shootings in the United States, Brazil’s hard-right president, former Army captain Jair Bolsonaro, offered NRA-style talking points: “Disarming people isn't going to keep that from happening," he said, advocating for looser gun laws in his country. “Brazil is, on paper, extremely unarmed; and a similar thing has already happened here in Brazil."
The International Rifle Association
In August of 2003, Charles Cunningham, a lobbyist for the National Rifle Association’s Institute for Legislative Action, spoke to a standing-room-only audience at a ritzy athletic club in one of the financial capitals of the world.
“Criminals don’t obey laws,” he told more than 300 fellow sportsmen. “Gun control legislation only affects law abiding citizens because criminals don’t get permits.”
He'd delivered variations of this spiel dozens of times. The crowd was eating it up as usual. Only this time the speech was south of the equator: The National Club in São Paulo, as a distinguished guest of the Brazilian Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property.
Worldwide, one out of 10 homicide victims is Brazilian. In recent years, around 60,000 Brazilians have died annually from gunshot wounds—roughly equivalent to the level of violence in war-torn Syria.
Back in 2005, Brazil was on the verge of a policy change that could stem the bleeding. In October of that year, 122 million Brazilians would vote in a national referendum on whether to ban the sale of guns and ammunition to private citizens—the first vote of its kind in world history.
The Brazilian people had seen enough shootings. As late as mid-September, support for the ban was running at 73 percent. The federal government was on board with the agenda. The Roman Catholic church pledged support. Grupo Globo, the largest media conglomerate in the Americas, stuffed its ubiquitous magazines, papers and newscasts with anti-gun stories and wove an anti-gun story line into the country's most popular soap opera.
Then the NRA landed.
“We view Brazil as the opening salvo for the global gun control movement,” said NRA representative Andrew Arulanandam. “If gun control proponents succeed in Brazil, America will be next.”
The globalization of gun rights began in 1996. International momentum for gun control was gathering steam, and the voice of the American sportsman was not at the table. The NRA registered to become an official nongovernmental entity at the United Nations.
Within a year, the NRA helped establish the World Forum on the Future of Sport Shooting Activities, a coalition of like-minded organizations in 40 countries that soon began cribbing from the NRA playbook in their local debates.
The NRA had a global market to protect. In the years to come, its lobbyists learned that the "right to keep and bear arms" resonates with people from all cultures, even those who have historically been anti-gun, especially in countries with fresh memories of dictatorship.
One of the biggest media buys of the pro-gun campaign in Brazil was a melodramatic TV commercial that urged Brazilians to protect their right to own a gun, even though Brazilians don't have a constitutional right to gun ownership.
"It won’t disarm criminals," said the narrator. A montage showed the Berlin Wall collapsing. A brave soul thwarting a tank in Tienanmen Square. Nelson Mandela freed from prison. "Your rights are at risk. Don’t lose your grip on liberty."
The ad climaxed with stirring archival footage of Brazilians filling the streets, reclaiming their voices after decades of military dictatorship.
Gun control advocates in Brazil claimed that the NRA invested more than $1 million in the pro-gun campaign, although the NRA denied any direct investment. Wherever the funding came from, the pro-gun lobby in Brazil was suddenly spreading gospel nearly identical to NRA messages.
"To adopt the line and the concepts, it’s easy," said Denis Mizne, executive director of Sou da Paz, a São Paulo-based gun control organization. "You just go to the web site."
Soon Brazilians from all walks of life were swapping tales of everyday citizens defending their wives and children against bandits.
When Brazilians went to the mandatory polls on October 23, they rejected the ban by a margin of nearly 2 to 1.
NRA Chief Executive Hobgoblin Wayne LaPierre wasted no time trumpeting the victory to supporters in the United States. "Thanks to the efforts of a handful of men and women who have created an obviously effective pro-gun grassroots effort out of whole cloth, the Brazilian people understood that the ban was another step toward leaving them defenseless against the anarchy of violent crime beyond any control of police.”
More than a decade later, gun violence remains an epidemic in Brazil. Just last month, for the first time since the dictatorship, the Brazilian military is intervening to take control of public security operations in Rio de Janeiro—with plans to expand the crackdown to other hot spots where police are killing young black and brown men in alarming numbers.
Brazil has risen to become the fourth largest producer of firearms in the world—and the second largest in the hemisphere behind the United States. Brazilian weapons have been traced to the ongoing conflict in Yemen. Brazilian cluster bombs, tear gas, concussion and smoke grenades have been exported to Saudi Arabia, Libya, Iraq and Egypt, enriching the country's leading weapons manufacturers, which receive sweetheart deals from the Brazil's National Development Bank.
Heading into a pivotal 2018 election, Brazil is swerving hard right. Its so-called "Bullets, beef and bible" caucus of conservative lawmakers has proposed legislation to further loosen firearms restrictions that are barely being enforced in their current form.
In late February, one of Brazil's most notorious international gun traffickers was arrested for smuggling 60 rifles—including dozens of AK-47s—absconded in swimming pool heaters bound from Miami International Airport to Rio de Janeiro.
After displaying the contraband during a press conference, police in Rio elected to keep the rifles for their own special forces operations.