BEIRUT: Every Lebanese family has a gun in the house - at least, that's the cliche. Most small weapons in private homes are never used. But one day they might be - and that's the danger of possessing them.
"I have a hunting gun at home," said an engineer living in Beirut. "I use it for hunting, but it could kill a person at a short distance as well. That's why I keep it - just in case."
His family in the mountains even owns three Kalashnikovs - left over from the Lebanese civil war.
"They still keep them, to be on the safe side. You never know what will happen," he said.
A 39-year-old employee recalls an incident when he actually used his gun.
"Two guys attacked me with iron bars. I didn't want to hurt them because I knew them personally, but I shot one of them in the leg," he said.
His case expired after three years without going to court. He was lucky. "I could have gone to jail," he explained.
Although he has had such an unpleasant experience, he still keeps a gun at home. He fears he will probably be attacked again.
"I don't feel secure. Maybe the peace we live in today is not real. Maybe there will even be another war."
Whether it is a confused feeling of insecurity or a concrete fear of attack, Lebanese keep small arms in their homes - an estimated 750,000 rifles, pistols and grenades can be found in private houses. However, the widespread distribution of small arms and light weapons is not a problem in Lebanon alone. In Iraq, some 8 million light weapons are estimated to be in circulation; in Yemen, 50 million. It is, in fact, a worldwide problem.
"Every year, 500,000 people are killed by small arms around the world, of which 200,000 are killed in peaceful countries," said Fadi Abi Allam, president of the Permanent Peace Movement.
This is far more than the victims of weapons of mass destruction: In Hiroshima and Nagasaki, 440,000 Japanese perished in 1945 when the United States dropped atomic bombs on those cities near the end of World War II.
But, international treaties to regulate weapons of mass destruction do exist, whereas there are no international agreements to control small arms and light weapons.
To raise awareness about the problems of small arms, this week the United Nations has organized its fourth annual international Week of Action Against Small Arms from July 1 to July 10.
This event is not the only one the international organization has used to address what has been recognized as a global problem.
In July 2001, the first international conference on small arms and light weapons was held, with a follow-up meeting two years later. The purpose of these conferences was to come up with an international treaty to control small arms, and to raise awareness about the danger of possessing them.
The UN would also like to involve governments and non-governmental organizations in the campaign. This week is part of their action plan.
In Lebanon, only the Permanent Peace Movement is currently involved in tackling the problem. The non-governmental organization started to contact government agencies and other NGOs in Lebanon to create a local network for taking action.
"The issue of small arms is an important component of the peace-building process in Lebanon," explained Abi Allam.
"We want to concentrate on two major issues. First of all, to try to change the mentality of violent means of conflict resolution. And secondly, to work on (eliminating) small arms (from society)."
He recalls an incident at the beginning of this year where a family feud escalated in the Kesrouan region and people were killed by light weapons. This wasn't an isolated incident.
"For one entire year we scanned seven local newspapers, checking the police reports, to find out how many people are killed each year by small arms."
For the year 2002, official statistics from General Security say that in 375 domestic shooting cases, people attempted to kill or did kill; in 173 cases, people
attempted to commit suicide or actually managed to kill themselves. Whether it was a personal conflict, a suicide attempt, or a dispute related to organized crime - the common denominator was the use of small arms.
However, in most cases in Lebanon, guns aren't used to threaten or to kill.
"People shoot in the air to express joy or grief," Abi Allam explained.
He thinks the possession of a gun is a social phenomenon, a "tradition" and a "habit." The Internal Security Forces registered 1,251 cases of shooting in the air in 2002.
The civil war period, when weapons were easily accessible, is certainly still a factor in the problem of the availability and abuse of small arms. But people have kept guns and pistols in their homes for centuries.
"It's simply a macho culture," said Abi Allam. "To possess a weapon is a normal part of daily life. They might never use it, but they want to have it."
Whether it is a patriarch who inherited a gun from his father, or a teenager who buys a modern automatic rifle to demonstrate manhood, a weapon remains a symbol of power. The problem is that small arms can be bought without restrictions - they are cheap and available everywhere.
"In Lebanon, we have progressive laws on light weapons," says Abi Allam. "But the laws are not implemented."
Licenses exist but, in general, no one asks for them. Also, the license does not impose a limit on the number of weapons a person may own, nor does it specify the type, said Abi Allam.
"We are lobbying for an ID for each small firearm," he explained, "so that we can control its path from the factory to the last owner."
Also, he would like to see the government stop giving licenses without control. Yet this would just be one step to limit the number of pistols and rifles available in the country. Another step would be disarming the population.
After the end of the civil war no program for the collection and disposal of arms was implemented. Families who wanted to dispose of their weapons could not do so.
"I had some hand grenades left over from the war. I couldn't hand them to the army or the police because they would have questioned me and started an interrogation," said a civil servant.
Not knowing what to do, he said he put them on a bridge near a mountain village where they were visible to passersby, hoping that someone would see them and call the police to take them away.
A colleague of his even has rockets left over from the war.
"We locked them away in a cave," he said. "They are very dangerous. We don't know what to do with them."
He contacted a friend who was renovating a house.
"We will probably go to the police, pretending that we found them during our renovations and hand them over," he said.
"Most people don't know what to do," Abi Allam said. "Some of them simply throw them in the garbage - that's very dangerous."
He recalls an incident from last month in which a man who was collecting cardboard from the garbage found hand grenades and was killed when they went off.
"The government must give people permission to hand in their weapons," he said.
"They should be able to get rid of them without accountability," he said. "By distributing weapons without control, war might develop. By collecting them, we can give peace a chance."