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

gun exchange Mexico

A gun surrendered in Mexico. (AP)

January 11, 2013

Half of Brazil's 17.5 million guns are unregistered—but that's a better rate than in Colombia and Mexico.
Chilean private citizens are not permitted to own semiautomatics. Just 14% of guns in Colombia are registered. There's only one gun store in Mexico.

Updated March 5, 2019—For many newly installed presidents in Latin America, violence and security are top agenda items. 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 loosened the rules in 2019.

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Argentina

To get a gun permit, citizens can apply through the Credential of Legitimate User of Firearms (CLUSE, in Spanish). The application process is open to Argentines 21 and over and requires the prospective owner to show they have no criminal record, provide details of where the gun will be kept, pass physical and psychiatric examinations, undergo firearm training, 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 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 known as PEVAF. From 2007 to 2015, more than 300,000 guns and 1.3 million munitions were destroyed through the program.

The number of carry permits is on the decline. In 2016, just 73 carry permits were granted, down from 436 in 2014 and 9,000 in 2003. A 2017 Small Arms Survey report recorded a roughly 10 percent decrease in firearms held by civilians from 3.6 million in 2012 to 3.3 million in 2017 in the country with a population of just over 44 million.

As an autonomous agency of the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights, ANMaC is responsible for overseeing gun registration and the gun surrender program. Until 2015, gun ownership in Argentina was overseen by the National Firearm Registry, known by its initials in Spanish, RENAR. ANMaC builds on its predecessor’s work by developing policies to reduce gun violence. Importantly, ANMaC is government-funded, as opposed to the private support RENAR had.

Brazil

Civilian gun ownership is permitted in Brazil. To own a firearm, citizens must be at least 25 years old and register the weapon with the Federal Police. Only handguns and semiautomatics are authorized; assault weapons are illegal for civilians. Gun permits cost $26 and must be renewed every ten years, according to 2019 legislation. Penalties for illegal firearm possession range between one to three 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 the individual received training to use a gun. The 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.

 
 

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 17.5 million guns in Brazil, more than half of which were illegal. In 2015, a measure to replace the 2003 statute and loosen gun control died in Congress, but in 2019, an executive decree brought significant changes.

In January 2019, during his first month in office, President Jair Bolsonaro signed a decree that loosened gun control in the country, one of his main campaign promises.

According to the 2019 decree, which modifies the 2003 Statue of Disarmament, some groups are automatically considered to have “effective necessity” to own a gun: military officers, penitentiary officers, registered hunters, collection owners, and residents of both rural areas and of urban areas in states with a homicide rate of more than 10 per 100,000 residents in 2016 according to the Violence Atlas, which is published by the Institute of Applied Economic Research. The lowest rate registered, however, was 10.9, meaning that, in practice, any citizen can declare “effective necessity” to own a gun.

The 2019 decree allows each individual to own four guns, but that number can be extended to six under special circumstances. It also extended the permit term from five to 10 years and includes a requirement for gun owners in residencies with children, adolescents, or a person with mental disability to have a safe in which to store the firearms. The decree did not change the carry permit regulations.

Chile

Though not a constitutional right, personal firearm ownership is permitted in Chile for any resident over the age of 18. The extensive procedure for acquiring a weapon includes registering a home address with the national firearm authority (Directorate General of National Mobilization, DGMN), 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. An individual must apply for an additional license and provide justification in order to own more than two guns.

Furthermore, it is illegal to carry a gun out of a registered home address unless the person has a carry permit—another complicated document to acquire that includes additional psychiatric approval. All licenses need regular recertification. It is illegal for civilians to own semiautomatic 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, 47 percent of which had not been legally registered with the authorities.

In February 2015, then-President Michelle Bachelet signed a 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 law, carrying a defaced, sawed off, or otherwise illegally modified gun carries a penalty of between three to 10 years in prison, and a minimum of three years for those who provide guns to minors. Carrying an unregistered gun is punishable by a three- to five-year prison sentence. The law prohibits gun ownership for anyone with a criminal history. The law also made psychological evaluations and gun knowledge tests more stringent and also encourages citizens to turn in and destroy their guns.

Colombia

Gun possession in Colombia is restrictive. The country’s Constitution of 1991 allows civilians the right to possess and carry a gun after obtaining a license, but in recent years presidents have issued decrees severely restricting carry permits. 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 and for the purposes of self-defense. That said, higher caliber handguns, semiautomatic guns, and automatic guns are all prohibited, except in “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 Defense Ministry. 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 ownership license, 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 the license or permit must prove the weapon is either necessary for self-defense or required for his or her profession. Illegal gun possession carries a sentence of between four to 15 years in prison. If a licensed gun owner is found guilty of domestic violence, the person may have his or her permit suspended or revoked.

Carry permits were first banned in Bogotá in 2012. In 2015, a nationwide ban on carry permits went into effect and has been extended each year by executive decree. Most recently, President Iván Duque extended the national ban on carry permits through December 31, 2019. In issuing the decree, Duque said that, “The monopoly on guns should be in the hands of the state.”

According to the Defense Ministry, at the time the 2019 legislation went into effect, there were 339,160 people with carry permits, which were all suspended by the decree. In 2018, the ministry issued a total of 6,827 permits for special circumstances. 

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).

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 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 signed by Peña Nieto that same year made the possession of gun cartridges and magazines illegal and increased penalties to two and five years in prison, as well as raised fines.

Two months after her election in 2018, Mexico City Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum started the “Yes to disarmament, yes to peace” program. In its first two weeks, citizens turned in 457 firearms and 438,000 cartridges. Citizens can participate in the voluntary disarmament campaign in the city and exchange firearms for toys or financial compensation of up to $939. The goal is to collect 5,000 guns by the time its $1 million budget is spent.

Venezuela

Since 2015, Venezuela has seen an erosion of rule of law and an increase in violence. Estimates by the Venezuelan Violence Observatory pointed to just under 27,900 killings in 2016, 12,800 of which were gun-related.

Under Venezuelan law on the books, gun possession by civilians is supposed to be restricted but not guaranteed. 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, then-President Hugo Chávez set up the Presidential Commission on Disarmament in 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 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 or confiscated in 2015 and more than 26,000 guns were destroyed in 2014, when the country registered the second highest homicide rate in the world.

But just a few years later, in 2017, Maduro reversed course and announced he would arm his loyalists with 400,000 guns to protect the country from what he said was a possible U.S.-backed coup. The Small Arms Survey from the same year estimated there were roughly 353,000 firearms in military control and a total of 5.8 million firearms in civilian hands in the country of roughly 30 million. In 2018 and 2019, over 7,000 deaths were attributed to “resistance to authority,” in a context of increased state violence and reports of intimidation and arbitrary gun deaths perpetrated by police and military forces.

Fernanda Nunes contributed to this article.