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.

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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."

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.

Despite the consequences, the Yemeni government has done little to combat weapons proliferation. In fact, their involvement may actually be exacerbating the problem. The army, which is plagued with unprofessionalism and armed to the teeth, has been given a dangerously prominent role in society. One consequence has been the placement of military encampments and poorly managed weapon stockpiles in urban areas. Accidents are an all-too-frequent occurrence.

"Iron Mountain," in Yemen's southern port city of Aden, gets its name because during the British occupation it was literally tunneled out and used as a weapons storage facility. In 1995 the mountain reportedly exploded in a shower of shrapnel, rubble, and rockets that miraculously resulted in only a handful of causalities. In a similar incident last October, the arms depot of the First Armored Division in Sana'a blew up, sending rockets flying -- killing one, injuring 5, and damaging a number of area houses, as documented on YouTube.

The Yemeni army also has a barracks inside Sana'a University. "How can we study inside the university if there are tanks, weapons and military camps next to us?" asks Majed Al-Shoaibi, a media student at the university. Shoaibi is spearheading an ongoing campaign against what he and others consider an "occupation" of the campus. The protest movement is calling for the demilitarization of the university, as well as the removal of political and national security agents. So far, it has seen only mild success. Though the 200 or so troops roaming freely as recently as a month ago have been reduced in number and made less public, soldiers remain a presence on campus.

One step toward uprooting Yemen's entrenched gun culture would be enforcing laws that are already on the books. "We have [a] package of laws that is among the most advanced legal frameworks in the Arab world, but the implementation of laws, this is the problem," says Ahmed Saif, director of the Sheba Center.

The only real effort at enforcement came in 2007, when the prime minster issued decrees banning weapons in major cities and limiting the number of armed guards that officials were allowed to hire. Between 2007 and 2010, the government confiscated hundreds of thousands of unlicensed weapons and temporarily closed hundreds of weapons shops -- laudable achievements for such a short time period. Alwajih Abdulghani Ali, the commander of Yemen's walking patrol police, who was on the front lines confiscating guns, believes the campaign was effective because, unlike in the past, "the Ministry of Interior really decided to prevent [the carrying of weapons in public]." He adds, "It was a tight security plan and they worked it well."

Then the Arab Spring came to Yemen. As the political and security situation rapidly deteriorated, violence climbed. Clashes between the government, tribesmen, and armed militants broke out around the country, even reaching the heart of Sana'a on several occasions. Widespread conflict has since subsided, leaving behind an armed and vigilant population, ready (though not eager) to once again take up arms if necessary. With the turnover in government, the momentum provided by the 2007 decrees has all but disappeared as well. Legislation designed to make those policy changes permanent continues to linger in parliament without being seriously debated, let alone passed.

Beyond the current political turmoil, the reluctance of officials may be the largest impediment to reform. "It seems like [members of parliament] don't want the country to have a good law [because] most of them, they deal with weapons," Ali says. The arms trade in the country is worth billions of dollars a year. At least anecdotally, everyone from ministry officials and the former president to MPs and tribal Sheikhs are getting a piece of the pie. With incentives for reform so fundamentally skewed, a long-term solution does not appear to be on the horizon.

In the meantime, Yemen's ever-fragile stability rests on the unsettling fact that, as Mohammed Abdul Lahoum, a tribal Sheikh and prominent politician put it, "Every side knows that if you're going to bring your gun, somebody else has a bigger gun."