The thundering sound of gunshots echoes through a room during a seemingly endless barrage.
It’s just after 7pm and the G-16 firing range in São Paulo is buzzing as customers pour in to relax after a busy day at work. Shooting ranges such as the G-16 have thrived and expanded in recent years, gaining more members as sales of weapons and ammunition soar.
The honor goes to Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, according to G-16 co-owner Daniel Pazzini.
“He was basically doing free advertising, encouraging people to buy guns and defend themselves that way,” Pazzini said, referring to Bolsonaro’s time-honored pro-gun message. Two large portraits of the president adorn the walls of his range, alongside an abundance of handguns, shotguns and a few large-caliber rifles.
Gun laws — alongside religion — have become a major battleground ahead of the second round of Sunday’s presidential election between Bolsonaro and his left-wing rival Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
During the frenetic campaign, both men took opposing sides of the gun ownership debate as they tried to bring evangelical Christians, who are estimated to make up more than 30 percent of Brazil’s population, to justice, according to research institute Datafolha.
While people of all political affiliations are welcome at his club, Pazzani says the choice for his members will likely be easy. “Bolsonaro defends the rights of gun owners, for good people, while Lula [da Silva] defends disarmament,” he says.
During Bolsonaro’s presidency — between 2018 and 2021 — the number of registered firearms in the country rose from 350,000 to more than 1 million, according to Brazil’s federal police.
Lula da Silva, on the other hand, has promised to tighten gun control if elected. Under his proposal, ordinary citizens would still be allowed to possess, but not carry, weapons.
Pazzini says he doesn’t expect Lula da Silva to have much impact on his livelihood even if he becomes president, but he is putting his chips on Bolsonaro.
In a campaign season that has focused more on social issues and cultural wars than on policy nuts and bolts, an increasing number of churches and religious leaders have begun to openly preach electoral salvation.
Both presidential candidates have recognized the impact and influence of churches in the electorate and have made efforts to get as many religious groups on their side as possible.
The task seems easier for the incumbent Bolsonaro, who prays regularly at his meetings and has a socially conservative stance on abortion, same-sex marriage and gender, which is more on par with most churches.
During the Victory in Christ Assembly of God, a Pentecostal church in Santo André, a commuter town on the outskirts of Sao Paulo, Pastor Odilon Santos is not shy about his political beliefs and says he will “vote for Bolsonaro because of the principles he defends.”
Santos not only believes it’s fair for the church to get involved in politics, he also seizes the opportunity.
“We think this is excellent, it’s a privilege for us, because for years the Church would not take a position at such an important time for the nation,” he says. “I am a preacher of the church, but I am also a Brazilian citizen, I fulfill my obligations, I pay my taxes. I believe I have a right to take a stand and influence others.”
Lula da Silva has also made an effort to court Brazilian churches. According to a Sept. 22 DataFolha poll, former President Bolsonaro led 53% to 28% among Catholics — the country’s largest religious denomination — ahead of the first round of voting earlier this year.
And last week, Lula also released an open letter to evangelicals, pledging to protect religious freedoms and distance himself from some of the more divisive issues, such as abortion.
“Personally, I am against abortion and I remind everyone that this is not an issue decided by the President of the Republic, but by Congress,” Lula wrote.
But his words fell on deaf ears in the Santos community, he says. “That letter has no value to us.”
The mistrust has been exacerbated by a bitter campaign season, marked by intense disinformation campaigns and name-calling on both sides.
Authorities in Brazil have stepped up their efforts to remove inaccurate information from social media websites, even setting up their own platform to debunk some of the allegations. But the effort sparked outcry from Bolsonaro’s supporters, who have undergone more investigations into alleged spreading of misinformation than those who support Lula.
In October, Brazil’s Supreme Court ordered that a Bolsonaro-affiliated radio station grant Lula da Silva’s campaign the right to respond to some allegations the court deemed “untrue, distorted or offensive”. The decision has set Bolsonaro supporters on fire, who have argued that the station, Jovem Pan, was unfairly suppressed.
“They say it’s fake news, anti-democratic acts. What is that? What is the definition?” Bolsonaro’s son, lawmaker Eduardo Bolsonaro, said at a meeting in Sao Paulo on Oct. 25 in support of Joven Pam. “It’s unbelievable. They’re just saying this is fake news. These are anti-democratic acts and they’re arresting you.”
With polls ahead of Sunday’s vote showing only a narrow margin between the candidates, it’s hard to predict who will come out on top. What is clear, however, is that the polarizing campaigns, which have exacerbated Brazil’s many fault lines, will make the new president’s job more difficult.