Gun Control, Yemen-Style

The war-torn Arab country is second only to the U.S. in gun ownership -- and second to none in weapons culture.

Yemen Guns Banner.jpg
a weapons store in a market in Arhab, north of Sanaa July 15, 2012. (Mohamed Al-Sayaghi/Reuters)

SANA'A, YEMEN -- With shops lining the main road and hard bargaining merchants abounding, Jihana appears to be your average Yemeni market. But instead of shopping for food or clothes, customers peruse a vast assortment of glocks, pistols, AK47s, M16s, anti-aircraft artillery, bazookas, and nearly any other weapon short of an actual tank.

"In Yemen, no matter if you're rich or poor, you must have guns. Even if it's just one piece," insists Abdul Wahab al-Ammari, a tribal sheikh from Yemen's Ibb province who resides in Sana'a, citing self-protection as the primary driver of gun ownership. "I have maybe 14 high powered weapons, and 3 handguns [at home]."

Americans, spurred by the tragic shootings in Newton, Aurora, and elsewhere, clearly aren't alone in their need to discuss gun control. Yemen, the second most heavily-armed country in the world per capita after the U.S., has a completely unique set of challenges as it wrestles with the question of what, if anything, can be done to address the demand of average citizens to bear arms.

According to a 2007 Small Arms Survey report, the rate of gun ownership in Yemen exceeds one weapon per every two citizens. Though no trivial statistic for the Arab world's poorest nation, the number fails to capture the comparatively public, casual, and engrained nature of Yemeni gun culture -- characteristics that could make solutions much harder to come by than in the US. "Acquiring weapons is part and parcel of the Yemeni culture historically," says Aish Awas, a security expert at the government-funded Sheba Center for Strategic Studies. "Over time it tends to be part of the Yemeni's identity."

Customers peruse a vast assortment of glocks, pistols, AK47s, M16s, anti-aircraft artillery, bazookas, and nearly any other weapon short of an actual tank.

That said, the Yemeni bond with firearms is still a relatively new phenomenon. Until the mid-twentieth century, Yemenis only carried what they call "white weapons" -- a traditional curved dagger (jambiya), knife, or similarly low-powered instruments. These were governed by customary tribal law that, among other things, forbade the killing of women and children, using guns against foreigners, or attacking while your opponent's back is turned. For a time, the rules were applied to guns as well. However, they have since been bent and broken, with gun use now undoubtedly going beyond mere self-defense.

Driving across Sana'a, walking down the street, or eating at a restaurant, it's almost impossible not to encounter a firearm. And that's the capital. Gun-slinging in tribal areas, especially northern ones, is even more cavalier. "Yemeni society links the weapons culture with manliness," says Abdulrahman al-Marwani, the founder and director of Dar al-Salam (House of Peace), the first NGO in Yemen to focus on disarmament. In Al-Marwani's many roles -- a list that includes everything from mediator in tribal conflicts to organizer of educational, anti-gun drama classes -- he says that one of his primary goals is to convince citizens that "a Yemeni can be a man without carrying weapons."

The message has yet to fully sink in. Weapons remain a central aspect of daily life in urban and rural areas alike. Weddings and other momentous occasions are invariably punctuated by joyous outbursts of automatic gunfire. For example, during the Arab Spring uprisings in Yemen, supporters of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh were infamous for filling the streets with a spray of bullets whenever they received good news. But, in the end, bullets have to land somewhere. In 2011 alone, hundreds were injured or killed by celebratory gunfire.

More broadly, there are an estimated 4,000 violent deaths here annually, a pre-revolution count that has likely increased over the last two years. Either way, the per capita rate is even higher than in America. A 2010 Yemen Armed Violence Assessment report detailed the casualties, saying, "Political violence was responsible for roughly two-thirds (64 percent) of all media-documented deaths from armed violence and almost three-quarters (71 percent) of all violent injuries."

The escalating political conflict in Yemen has led to the arming of almost every faction in the country's complex landscape, from the government and tribes to northern rebels and Al-Qaeda. The ongoing conflagrations -- along with kidnappings, assassinations and other politically motivated crimes -- combine to produce a security situation that is, as it has been for most of the last five decades, precarious at best.

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Tik Root is a journalist based in Sana'a, Yemen. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy and the Washington Post, among other outlets.

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