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.
Gun laws in Latin America:
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, 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 carrying 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 one and 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 one’s 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.
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