Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro gives a thumbs up after signing a decree that loosens restrictions on owning a firearm at Planalto presidential palace in Brasilia on Jan. 15. (Eraldo Peres/AP)

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro signed a decree Tuesday loosening restrictions on gun ownership, a move that appeased his base but which critics say will worsen a crime wave that has already claimed thousands of lives. 

Bolsonaro’s decree, made while he was surrounded by members of Brazil’s “bullet caucus,” makes it easier for average citizens to access guns and extended the validity of existing gun registrations from five to ten years.

Brazil has the most murders in the world, and Bolsonaro made arming regular citizens a cornerstone of his campaign for president in 2018. The decree is a nod to supporters demanding greater autonomy in self-defense amid the spike in crime.

“To guarantee your legitimate right to defense, I, as president, will use this weapon,” Bolsonaro said, referring to his pen as he signed the decree. 

The decree must be ratified by Congress within 120 days to take effect.  

Brazil saw a record 64,000 homicides in 2017, the most current year for which there is data. While gun ownership is legal, it is highly restricted to adults older than 25 who can prove a legal need for a weapon. 

In 2003, Brazil enacted a sweeping disarmament law that restricted civilian gun purchases and forced applications for registered guns to be signed off by the police. Bolsonaro’s decree limits the cases in which the police can reject applications for gun ownership. 

There are an estimated 600,000 registered guns in Brazil, but millions are smuggled illegally throughout the country. As crime rates have spiked, so have the number of people seeking weapons. Still, 61 percent of Brazilians think guns should be outlawed, according to local pollster Datafolha, because they represent a threat to human life. 

Critics say the decree will make it harder to quell violence and track illegal weapons, and might increase already high rates of police brutality. 

“For those of us who work on violence prevention in a country that has the largest number of gun deaths in the world, the discussion of gun ownership rights is a great distraction,” said Ilona Szabo, director of the Igarape Institute, a think tank in Rio de Janeiro that studies violence prevention. “It will not help the government reach its goal of making Brazil a safer place.”