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James Denselow

Tackling Lebanon's gun culture

The gun is celebrated in all aspects of social and recreational life, even shisha-smoking [AFP]

Date of publication: 24 July, 2017

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Comment: Hidden beneath the country's famously complex geopolitics is an insidious gun culture that needs to be addressed, writes James Denselow.
In June, Lebanese families celebrated their schoolchildren's exam results. Tragically, but sadly predictably, aerial gunfire was a go-to tactic for many celebrating.

A seven-year-old boy was killed after he was hit in the head by a stray round.

This followed a wedding photographer being accidentally shot in the stomach by a celebrating groom the week before, and a man going one step further by firing a celebratory RPG to mark good exam news.

Weddings, exams, funerals and elections are just some of the moments in Lebanon where it is a lot safer to stay indoors and under cover. The country's Interior Minister recently called on people to "revolt" in response to celebratory gunfire.

A 1959 law stated that "anyone firing in residential areas or in a crowd, whether their gun is licensed or not" faces up to three years in prison or a fine. Yet this law has been characterised by its non-enforcemet over the past half a century. Such is the apparent worsening trend around celebratory gunfire that recent legislation has updated the law and outlined tougher penalties - and July saw two men jailed for the practice.

Lebanon has a long history and complicated present when it comes to its relationship with guns. To address such a multifaceted challenge requires a combination of public education, law enforcement and cultural shaming - knitted together with new ways of thinking to help prevent future tragedy.
Every so often a media feature story will pop up and visit a Lebanese arms dealer and highlight the latest price of an AK-47 and what that means for the state of politics in the country


International studies estimate that there are between 526,000 and 600,000 violent deaths annually, with guns responsible for some 300,000 of them. In Lebanon there are millions of licensed guns in a population of some four million people, with the added problem of illegal weaponry.

Every so often a media feature story will pop up and visit a Lebanese arms dealer and highlight the latest price of an AK-47 and what that means for the state of politics in the country. These insights also reveal the breadth and depth of the gun market when it comes to what weapons are available - seemingly mostly sourced from a region suffering from high levels of conflict and associated instability.

Gun
sales are apparently being squeezed by the clampdown on celebratory gunfire, but there remains a large mismatch between numbers of arrests and prosecutions, which suggest that the country has some way to go.

Of course, the issue of weapons in Lebanon goes far beyond individuals wishing to celebrate in a particularly risky manner. Hizballah, for so long described by the Americans as "the A-Team" of terrorists, are equipped with state-of-the-art weaponry and are more powerful than the country's military. 

UN resolutions have attempted to tackle the issue of non-state militias and their arms but they've proved to be a "red line" for the group, which has subsequently gone on to play a pivotal role in the Syrian civil war.

The famous Cairo Accords of 1969 ceded effective sovereignty of the Palestinian refugee camps in the country to the PLO and allowed them to be armed and conduct operations from within them - an issue that would be a legacy of Lebanon's own civil war and that would reappear in a different guise when a militant group took control of Nahr al-Bared refugee camp in 2007, sparking a bloody showdown with the military.

The scars of the fifteen-year civil war in Lebanon are not necessarily obvious to the casual visitor to the country beyond the pockmarked Holiday Inn in downtown Beirut.

However, the societal scars run deeper and the degree of genuine reconciliation remains unclear and has led many to keep a healthy supply of firearms to hand to ensure protection against future civil strife.
The families of those who have lost children to such unnecessary tragedies should have their stories told, promoted and shared at the highest possible level


The prohibition of firearms is clearly a somewhat unrealistic goal at this time, which brings the debate back to whether celebratory gunfire can act as a pivot for wider discussions around the easy availability of guns and how people choose to use them. A consistent approach to the new law and prosecutions is the next step to show that the government means business.

Beyond this, awareness of the fact that celebratory gunfire is not a manly, traditional or "normal" thing to do must be hardwired into people's psyche in the same way that a public health campaign would look to address the dangers of smoking or drink-driving.

What's more, the families of those who have lost children to such unnecessary tragedies should have their stories told, promoted and shared at the highest possible level.

There also should be an exploration of more creative means of making safe such a dangerous practice. More official "gun salutes" to mark occasions could replace the need for individuals to bring their own weapons, or perhaps "celebration blanks" could be marketed to those looking to enjoy an occasion without creating the need for a subsequent funeral.

Considering the scale of the challenge that Lebanon currently faces in the rough geopolitical sea of the region it could seem bizarre to focus down upon as niche an issue as celebratory gunfire. However I would argue that not only is the practice stupid and deadly, but addressing it could reflect the reassertion of the sensible unitary state which could subsequently lead to tougher issues being tackled.



James Denselow is an author and writer on Middle East politics and security issues. He is a former board member of the Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU) and a director of the New Diplomacy Platform.

Follow him on Twitter: @jamesdenselow

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff

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