UPDATE 2-Bolsonaro loosens gun laws in murder-ridden Brazil

(Updates with details of decree)

BRASILIA, Jan 15 (Reuters) - Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro on Tuesday signed a temporary decree making it easier for Brazilians to buy guns, delivering on a campaign promise to overturn strict regulations in a country suffering from a record wave of gangland murders.

Bolsonaro won the presidency by running on a far-right, law-and-order platform, and often delighted supporters at campaign stops with his signature “guns up” hand gesture. His maverick presidential run energized a base of rural landowners, Christian conservatives and free market hawks who yearned for a tougher response to years of rising violence and endemic graft.

The temporary decree, which will expire in 120 days unless ratified by Congress, is likely to thrill his supporters, but many others fear it will only worsen violence in Brazil, which suffered a record 64,000 murders in 2017, the world’s highest tally. Nearly 45,000 of those homicides involved firearms.

A one-time army captain who took office on Jan. 1, Bolsonaro eventually wants to overturn a 2003 law that effectively banned civilian purchase of guns.

“To guarantee citizens their legitimate right to defense, I, as president, will use this weapon,” Bolsonaro said, holding up the pen he then used to sign the decree.

Gun laws toughened considerably under former leftist President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who in 2003 signed sweeping measures that prevented ordinary citizens from carrying guns. The law mandated background checks for gun purchases and gave federal police the right to reject applications for gun ownership for any reason.

However, Lula’s attempts to deepen gun control foundered in a 2005 referendum, when about 65 percent of Brazilians voted against a proposal to completely ban gun sales.

Bolsonaro’s executive order will remove the “discretionary” role that federal police have in approving civilians’ requests to buy guns. He has said decisions on who can, or cannot, carry weapons are completely subjective.

The measure will apply to people living in the countryside, those residing in urban areas where the homicide rate is above 10 deaths per 100,000 people, and to “collectors and hunters.”

Brazilians will be allowed to keep up to four guns in their homes or places of business, though that number could rise on a case-by-case basis. Any home with a child, or someone suffering from certain mental illnesses, must store the weapons in a safe.

Federal Police data shows that just over 646,000 arms legally sold are in circulation in Brazil as of this month. About half of those weapons are registered to private citizens. The rest are held by private and public security firms.

Accurate data on how many illegal firearms are in Brazil is hard to come by, but previous studies from the Justice Ministry suggest nearly 8 million weapons are in the country illegally.

Brazil’s heavily armed drug gangs and paramilitary militias easily obtain weapons that are made by domestic manufacturers, mainly Taurus Armas SA, or smuggled over the country’s porous borders.

Gangs in Rio de Janeiro almost exclusively carry Glock weapons now, and have obtained an array of AR Rifles that come from American and European manufacturers.

Onyx Lorenzoni, Bolsonaro’s chief of staff, said the decree restored the right of citizens to have a weapon for their legitimate defense, a right he said had been denied by previous leftist governments.

“Studies show that the better armed the population is the less violence there will be,” Lorenzoni told the GloboNews cable channel. He said armed robberies of homes had increased because thieves knew residents could not defend themselves.

Robert Muggah, director of research at the Rio-based Igarape Institute, a security and development think tank, said that is not true.

“There is no hard evidence that loosening access to firearms improves public safety or security,” he said. “By contrast, there is considerable evidence that responsible regulations are associated with reductions in gun-related homicide of civilians and police officers alike.” (Reporting by Maria Carolina Marcela Additional reporting by Brad Brooks in Sao Paulo and Gabriel Stargardter in Rio de Janeiro Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Steve Orlofsky)

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