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Explainer: Gun Laws in Latin America’s Six Largest Economies

gun exchange Mexico

A man in Mexico City surrenders a gun to a city employee as part of a voluntary government weapons exchange program. (AP Photo)

January 11, 2013

Following a mass school shooting in Connecticut in December 2012, policymakers in the United States began engaging in a renewed debate about gun control. AS/COA Online looks at gun-related legislation in Latin America’s six largest economies, identifying regulations for arms licensing. In Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and Venezuela, gun possession is legal for civilians, though restrictions tend to be stringent.

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Argentina: Gun ownership in Argentina is overseen by the National Firearm Registry (abbreviated to RENAR in Spanish). The application process, open to Argentines 21 and over, requires the prospective owner to prove they have no criminal record, provide details of where the gun will be kept, pass physical and psychiatric examinations, undergo firearm training at RENAR, and show proof of income. All prospective owners are also fingerprinted.

Look for an article by criminal justice expert Richard Aborn about pre-trial detentions in Latin America in the upcoming Winter 2013 issue of Americas Quarterly, out January 29.

The application process for permission to carry a gun requires all of the above requisites as well as a written request justifying the need to transport the weapon. Licenses are valid for one year, after which all documents must be resubmitted. Furthermore, firearm makers and dealers must keep a record of all weapons made and traded. Semiautomatic weapons are permitted for civilians.

The government, through RENAR, has in place a paid voluntary and anonymous gun surrender program, which aims to reduce gun violence in Argentina. Between 2002 and 2010, an estimated 132,931 guns were destroyed through the program.

Brazil: Civilian gun ownership is permitted in Brazil, though it is not a legal right. Brazil’s Congress passed comprehensive gun control legislation in 2003, called the Statute of Disarmament, and then-President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva signed an additional decree on the statute in 2004. The statute established rules on gun ownership and carry permits, as well as creating a national firearms registry. The law also initiated a program for the government to purchase guns from citizens as a means to disarm the general population. In 2005, 64 percent of Brazilians voted no in a referendum on whether to ban the sale of guns and ammunition to civilians.

To own a firearm, citizens must be at least 25 years old and register the weapon with the Federal Police. However, only handguns and semi-automatics are authorized; assault weapons are illegal for civilians. Gun permits cost $30 and must be renewed every three years. Penalties for illegal firearm possession range between 1 and 3 years in prison. In addition, Brazilian law outlaws the manufacture, sale, and import of toys and replicas of guns that could be confused with real weapons.

While Brazilians can buy guns, carry permits—authorizing the person to bring the weapon outside his home—are difficult to obtain. Applicants must provide a written declaration explaining the necessity of carrying the weapon, prove that they have no criminal background, and pass a mental health test with a government-approved psychologist. Carry-permit seekers must also show that they received training to use a gun. These permits are valid for five years. Carry permits are authorized for members of the armed forces, police, prison guards, security officials, and transportation companies. Civilian-owned guns are prohibited in schools, government buildings, churches, and sports complexes. On January 10, President Dilma Rousseff vetoed a bill that would have allowed off-duty prison guards to carry guns.

Chile: Though not a constitutional right, personal firearm ownership is permitted in Chile for any resident over the age of 18. However, the procedure for acquiring a weapon is an extensive process. It includes registering a home address with the national firearm authority, receiving psychiatric approval, and passing an official exam on the proper use and maintenance of firearms. A standard permit allows ownership of up to two weapons. Justification must be given and an additional license applied for to own more guns. Furthermore, it is illegal to carry a gun out of a registered home address unless the person has a permit to do so—another complicated document to acquire that includes additional psychiatric approval. All licenses need regular recertification. It is illegal for civilians to own semi-automatic weapons in Chile.

Currently, if caught carrying a weapon outside of a registered private home without a license, a person can have his penalty reduced if the court fails to prove there was malicious intent. However, the government has sent a revision of this law to the Senate that would invert the procedure and place the onus on defendants to prove they were not intending to commit a crime.

The national firearm authority conducted a public campaign in 2012 on the importance of the “responsible ownership of firearms,” asking Chileans to voluntarily register their weapons if they hadn’t done so and asking them to hand guns over, registered or not, to the police to be destroyed. By the end of the year 5,554 guns were destroyed, 53 percent of which were already legally registered with the authorities.

Colombia: Gun possession in Colombia is restrictive, though the country’s Constitution of 1991 includes an article guaranteeing civilians the right to possess and carry a gun by obtaining a permit from the government. The Constitution also bans civilian-owned guns at political meetings and elections.

The country’s firearm regulations are governed by the Colombian legal system and penal code. Civilians 18 and older can purchase and carry small caliber handguns and shotguns with barrels of 22 inches or less with a license, for the purposes of self-defense. However, higher caliber handguns, semi-automatic guns, and automatic guns are all prohibited, except in cases of “exceptional circumstances.” To receive a permit for an automatic weapon to be used for personal protection, applicants must appeal to the Arms Committee of the Ministry of Defense. All guns must be registered with the military, which maintains a national gun registry. The armed forces have a monopoly over the sale of weapons and ammunition and issue all gun permits.

To obtain a gun-possession permit, valid for 10 years, applicants must pass criminal and mental background checks and prove their ability to use firearms. Carry permits are only valid for three years. Applicants for either type of permit must prove the weapon is necessary for self-defense or require the weapon for his or her profession. Illegal gun possession carries between four and 15 years in prison. If a gun license holder is found guilty of domestic violence, the person may have his or her permit suspended or revoked.

In February 2012, Bogota banned guns in public places for three months, later extending the ban through February 2013. Medellin also instituted a one-year gun ban in January 2012.

Mexico: Although Mexicans have a constitutional right to own guns, one obstacle limits gun purchases: there is only one gun store in the country, located in Mexico City. Still, Mexico ranks seventh worldwide in terms of the number of privately owned guns and violence stemming from a battle against organized crime in recent years has raised concerns about gun smuggling, particularly from the United States.

Article 10 of the Mexican Constitution entitles the country’s citizens to own guns. After civil unrest and the student movements of the late 1960s, a 1971 reform to the constitution made Article 10 more restrictive; citizens were limited to gun ownership at home, while the right to carry weapons—whether openly or concealed—became restricted to federal jurisdiction.

Citizens can largely carry handguns, shotguns, and rifles below specific calibers. Gun ownership requires obtaining a one-year gun permit from the Secretariat of National Defense within 30 days of acquisition. A gun owner must belong to a shooting club to get a permit, can get permits for up to 10 weapons, and can only purchase ammunition for the calibers of guns owned. Other requirements include being 18 years of age, having mental and physical capacity to operate a gun, holding no criminal convictions, and fulfillment of military service. Private sale of guns is allowed, and subject to the same gun-permit laws. A separate permit is needed for a citizen to carry a weapon outside of a residence, and involves requirements such as an occupational necessity (for example, employees of security firms or rural workers).

Despite the permit rules, a sizeable gap stands between the number of weapons in circulation and those registered. GunPolicy.org estimates that the number of guns held by Mexican civilians totals 15.5 million, and yet the number registered is roughly 2.8 million.

Aside from the low registry rates, arms smuggling remains a major concern, given that tens of thousands have died since the Mexican government ramped up its fight against organized crime six years ago. Mexico may only have one gun shop, but there are over 50,000 gun retailers just across the border in the United States. Since 2007, roughly 70,000 illicit weapons captured in Mexico were traced back to U.S. manufacturers or dealers. April 2012 data from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives found that two of every three illegal guns recovered in Mexico came from the United States. With few limits on ammunition sales in the United States, the smuggling of bullets into Mexico is another challenge. A 2011 study published by the University of Notre Dame estimates that the 2004 expiration of the U.S. Federal Assault Weapons Ban led to a 16.4 percent increase in Mexico’s homicide rate between 2004 and 2008.

Venezuela: Gun possession by civilians is restricted and is not guaranteed by law. Due to escalating gun violence, President Hugo Chávez set up the Presidential Commission on Disarmament in May 2011, launching a public disarmament effort that saw over 130,000 illegal weapons surrendered that year alone. The commission issued a resolution in February 2012 banning the sale of all firearms and ammunition to civilians. It also imposed a one-year moratorium on commercial gun imports and the issuing of gun-carry permits. The rule went into effect in June 2012, allowing only the army, police, and security companies to legally buy weapons. In 2011, the commission also issued resolutions banning guns on public transportation, construction sites, and cultural and sporting events.

Prior to the gun sale suspension, Venezuelans over the age of 18 could apply for permits to own and carry .22 caliber rifles and shotguns. Applicants had to pass mental and criminal background checks, as well as provide justification for purchasing a gun. Gun possession permits last three years. All other weapons were prohibited for civilians, and penalties for illegal weapons possession range from 5 to 10 years in prison. Those who received gun permits before the new rule went into place can continue to renew their licenses. Despite the one-year ban on civilian gun sales, gun possession is still legal, though government officials expressed interest in instating a complete civilian arms ban.

Venezuela’s legislature is considering a new disarmament bill, though it is currently stalled. It would raise the minimum purchasing age to 25, and would mandate gun and ammunition marking to more easily track arms. In 2002, Congress passed the Law of Disarmament, which established guidelines for collecting illegal weapons and banned guns in places where alcohol is served as well as public meeting places.