Wearing a black T-shirt stamped with the word "Bolsonaro" and a skull, Brazilian ex-cop Elitusalem Gomes Freitas takes aim with his .40-caliber rifle and fires, savoring the smell of gunpowder as he nails his target.
Clutching his bulky black rifle at a firing range in the Rio de Janeiro suburbs, a handgun strapped to his thigh, Freitas proudly repeats one of far-right President Jair Bolsonaro's maxims: "An armed populace will never be enslaved."
Freitas is part of a demographic that has boomed in Bolsonaro's Brazil: since the former Army captain became president in 2019, the number of registered gun owners has more than quintupled, from 117,000 to 673,000, as the administration has loosened gun-control laws.
There are now more civilian gun owners in Brazil than police – 406,384.
That is making some Brazilians nervous as the country heads for a divisive presidential election on October 2 pitting Bolsonaro against his leftist nemesis, ex-president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (2003-2010), who leads in the polls.
Citing fears of election violence, the Supreme Court temporarily suspended several of Bolsonaro's gun-control rollbacks last week. The week before, the Superior Electoral Tribunal (TSE) banned voters from bringing guns to polling stations.
Like Bolsonaro, Freitas is no fan of the electoral authority, which the president accuses of allowing what he insists – without evidence – is rampant fraud in Brazil's electronic voting system.
After inspecting the white silhouette target he has just filled with holes, Freitas, 42, explains he is ready to take up arms if necessary to defend Brazil's "freedom."
"I can't allow half a dozen people [the TSE's judges] to decide our nation's destiny against the people's will. The right to bear arms is how we guarantee our freedom and defend our sovereignty against the internal enemy," he says.
But he adds there is nothing to fear from Brazil's burgeoning class of firearm owners.
"It's not about arming everyone. It's about giving good citizens the right to access a firearm and learn to use it."
Security expert Bruno Langeani says hardliners ready to take up arms in the name of politics are a minority in Brazil.
But he emphasizes that "even a minority can cause huge damage if it's radicalised," pointing to the rioters who stormed the US Capitol last year after the election loss of ex-US president Donald Trump – Bolsonaro's political role model.
Langeani says the massive expansion of gun ownership in Brazil will be a "cursed inheritance" that could fuel violence for years to come.
"A civilian can now buy more powerful guns than the police," he says. "Licensed hunters, sport shooters and collectors can in some cases own up to 60 firearms per person, including 30 assault rifles."
There are 4.4 million firearms in civilian hands in Brazil, a country of 212 million people, according to the Brazilian Public Security Forum. One-third of them have expired permits.
Bolsonaro points to a fall in murders as evidence his gun policies are a success: last year, the number of homicides fell by 13 percent.
However, the number of murders with firearms increased by 24 percent, according to health ministry figures.
'Like a shopping mall'
Around 1,000 shooting clubs – members-only firing ranges – have opened in Brazil since Bolsonaro took office, according to Army figures cited by online news site UOL.
"When the government made it easier to purchase firearms, I said, 'We have to jump on this,'" says former policeman Marcelo Costa, president of the club where Freitas practices, Mil Armas ("One Thousand Firearms"), which opened four years ago.
Costa operates the club with his two sons, both in their 20s and both fellow gun enthusiasts. His wife, a psychologist, is licensed by the authorities to perform the mandatory psychological evaluations of all new members.
The club, which has strict security protocols, offers lessons for members, and legal advice for those who want to obtain a gun licence.
Members can borrow or purchase weapons from the club's vast arsenal, with prices ranging from 5,000 to 20,000 reais (US$950-US$3,800).
"It's like a shopping mall. We have everything," says Costa, who offers the option to buy guns in up to 12 installments with no interest.
by Eugenia Logiuratto, AFP