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

gun exchange Mexico

A gun surrendered in Mexico. (AP Photo)

January 11, 2013

Citizens can carry guns in Latin America's largest economies but they must pass mental health checks first.
Half of Brazil's 15.2M guns are illegal—and Congress is considering loosening #guncontrol laws.

Updated January 19, 2016—Given a string of mass shootings and executive action on gun control, the United States is in the midst of a renewed debate on guns. To compare, 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. In recent years, several countries sought to tighten gun control, while Brazil’s Congress prepares to loosen the rules.

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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.

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 has in place a paid voluntary and anonymous gun surrender program, which aims to reduce gun violence in Argentina. From 2007 to 2015, more than 300,000 guns and 1.3 million munitions were destroyed through the program. The number of gun permits granted is also on the decline. In 2003, RENAR granted 9,000 permits, compared to 436 in 2014. 

In October 2015, Argentina’s Congress passed a law to create a new body that would replace RENAR, called the National Agency of Controlled Materials (ANMaC). As a decentralized, autonomous agency of the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights, ANMaC will be responsible for overseeing gun registration and the gun surrender program, as RENAR has. But ANMaC will also build on the previous agency’s success by developing policies to reduce gun violence. The new agency will use government funding, as opposed to private support, as occurs for RENAR. 

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. As of 2015, there were around 15.2 million guns in Brazil, and more than half are illegal.

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. 

However, Congress is now considering loosening gun control. In November 2015, a congressional committee approved the Gun Control Statute, aimed to replace the 2003 Disarmament Statute. This year, the full Chamber of Deputies is slated to vote on the bill.

The proposed law allows civilians to own guns for self–defense and defending property, with each individual permitted up to nine guns and 600 rounds of ammunition per year. (Under current law, it’s six guns and 50 bullets annually.) The minimum age to buy a gun would fall from 25 to 21, and those under criminal investigation would be able to buy and carry guns. Gun registration must be renewed every three years, but the bill would create a one-time only registration. The legislation would also allow certain professions—including lawmakers—to legally carry guns. Finally, civilians would be permitted to register guns with civil and military police; currently, that can only be done with the federal police. 

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.

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.

In February 2015, President Michelle Bachelet signed a new gun control bill into law, including new restrictions on gun sales, increased sentences for gun violations, and changes to gun registration. At that time, there were around 750,000 registered guns in the country.

Under the new law, carrying homemade guns carries a penalty of between five and 10 years in prison, and a minimum of 541 days for those who give guns to minors to commit crimes. Carrying an illegal gun now requires a three- to five-year prison sentence rather than a fine. The law prohibits gun ownership for anyone with a criminal history. Psychological evaluations and gun knowledge tests were made more stringent. The law also encourages citizens to turn in and destroy their guns. 

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. A 2014 study found that there are more than half a million legal guns in the country, and that one in 300 Colombians owns a legal weapon. 

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.

In August 2014, Representative Carlos Eduardo Guevara submitted a bill to Congress to increase gun control, putting the responsibility of arms control under the Ministry of the Interior. The proposal would force gun permit renewals every two years instead of three, and would require gun owners to submit a training certificate to prove they know how to use weapons safely. People with criminal records and those considered “high risk” would be denied gun permits. 

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 million, and yet the number registered is roughly 3.1 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. Mexico may only have one gun shop, but there are over 50,000 gun retailers just across the border in the United States.

With few limits on ammunition sales in the United States, the smuggling of bullets into Mexico is another challenge. From 2009 to 2014, close to 74,000 weapons captured in Mexico were traced back to the United States—about 70 percent of all guns seized. 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.

In April 2015, the country’s legislature approved changes to the country’s Federal Law of Firearms and Explosives introduced by President Enrique Peña Nieto. It allows foreigners who work in customs, immigration, or high-level government security agents to carry guns in Mexico, as well as allowing Mexican officials in the same areas to carry guns abroad. Another bill expected to be signed by the president early this year would make the possession of gun cartridges and magazines illegal with penalties of between two and five years in prison, as well as fines. 

Venezuela: Gun possession by civilians is restricted and is not guaranteed by law. 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.

Due to escalating gun violence, the late 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.

In June 2013, President Nicolás Maduro signed the Law of Disarmament and Arms and Munitions Control, and he later established further regulations in April 2014. The law raised the age of gun possession to 25, and requires applicants to have a clean record, a psychological exam, training certification, and proof of legal purchase. For personal defense, civilians must renew gun permits every two years and are allowed only one gun with 50 bullets per year. The law also suspended non-government gun sales and the emission of new gun permits for two years. 

In the legislation, Maduro established a new disarmament campaign to provide incentives for civilians to give up their guns. Close to 8,000 guns were turned in last year and more than 26,000 guns were destroyed in 2014.