RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – The murder rates in Brazil for January and February this year were 25 percent lower compared to the same period last year, according to G1’s national homicide index. The index is based on official data from the 26 states and the Federal District.
Jair Bolsonaro was elected President of Brazil on 28 October 2018. President Bolsonaro has been adamant about reforming Brazil’s extreme gun laws, to allow more Brazilians to defend themselves.
Did President Bolsonaro’s reform policies in favor of self-defense cause the drop in murder rates? The answer is complicated. Bolsonaro’s policies probably had a positive effect.
President Bolsonaro’s opponents have routinely predicted that homicides would increase because of his reforms of Brazil’s gun laws. From worldpoliticsreview.com, in March 2019, before the new statistics were out:
But even if the law doesn’t pass, the presidential decree already represents a step backward for public security in Brazil. Broadening access to guns puts men, women and children at higher risk of lethal violence. Bolsonaro and other gun advocates say that more armed citizens will deter shootings, but there is simply no hard evidence that loosening restrictions on firearms improves public safety or security. In fact, research from IPEA shows that for every 1 percent increase in the number of firearms in circulation in Brazil, there is a 2 percent increase in homicides. In most other countries as well, there is a similar relationship between permissive gun laws and gun-related homicides.
Note the last sentence in the quote above. The author is not talking about a decrease in homicides, rather a decrease in gun-related homicides.
Those who wish a disarmed population assume that more guns = more crime. But numerous studies show there is no clear relationship. Some studies, done by John Lott and others show more guns = less crime. The effects are not extreme, but the overall trend shows a decrease in violent crime when more people are armed. Many studies show no relationship between guns and overall murder rates.
Decreasing gun-related homicides is ineffective if the overall homicide rate remains the same or increases. Much of the argument about restrictive gun law is about substitution effects. It does not matter to a murder victim if they are killed with a bomb or knife instead of a gun. Making guns harder to get can also mean making victims easier to kill because they are unarmed.
President Bolsnaro issued his first decree reforming some of Brazil’s extreme gun laws on 15 January 2019. How could his decree have such a dramatic effect in such a short time? It is unlikely that the total number of Brazilians with legal guns increased significantly in from January 15th to the end of February.
The answer is an inversion of the copycat effect. Just as some people are more likely to commit horrific crimes because of media publicity, criminals are less likely to commit a violent crime if they perceive the risk to be great because of media coverage.
When President Bolsonaro was elected, the publicity of his desired reform of the gun laws was tremendous. His actual reform decree on 15 January was widely reported all over the world.
Potential murders and violent criminals watch TV, listen to the radio, and surf the Internet.
When their perception is that crime has a greater risk, crime rates decrease.
There are historical examples that illustrate this effect. When women were widely reported to receive firearms training in Orlando, Florida, in 1966, the number of rapes decreased by 88% in the next year. There were similar effects when Kennesaw Georgia received substantial publicity for an ordinance requiring a gun in the home (an 89% decrease in residential burglaries). Several other instances are cited by Professor Gary Kleck in his seminal work, Point Blank, Guns and Violence in America.
In order to continue the initial drop in homicides, Brazil will need to reinforce the perception that violent crimes have become more dangerous.
The high level of reporting, as President Bolsonaro reinforces his push to reform the extreme gun laws, should help. There was worldwide coverage of his second reform decree on 7 May 2019.
President Bolsonaro can assist by keeping the gun law reforms in the news.
The media in Brazil should publish stories of citizens purchasing guns, citizens receiving gun training, and successful instances of citizens using guns for defense of self, others, and their homes.
By the end of 2019, we will see if the experiment in reducing homicides by reforming the gun laws to make self-defense easier, has had an effect.
Over the long term, more Brazilians will need to be armed and capable of defending themselves on the street to sustain changes in how criminals perceive the risks of violent crime.
About Dean Weingarten:
Dean Weingarten has been a peace officer, a military officer, was on the University of Wisconsin Pistol Team for four years, and was first certified to teach firearms safety in 1973. He taught the Arizona concealed carry course for fifteen years until the goal of constitutional carry was attained. He has degrees in meteorology and mining engineering, and recently retired from the Department of Defense after a 30 year career in Army Research, Development, Testing, and Evaluation.