BEIRUT: Almost everyone has a story, but the one Khodor tells is among the saddest. Almost two years ago, 27-year-old Imad, Khodor’s neighbor and friend in Beirut’s southern suburbs, accidentally shot and killed his teenage brother.
Imad had been sitting on the main staircase of his building, casually toying with a 9mm pistol – not an unusual possession for a young man in his neighborhood. Somehow, as his brother Suhail (then 18 or 19, Khodor says) approached the building’s entrance gate, Imad’s pistol discharged, the runaway bullet devastatingly finding Suhail’s head.
With estimates for the number of privately held arms in Lebanon ranging from 500,000 to 2 million, and in the absence of stringent oversight of the issuance and terms of personal weapons permits, Lebanon’s gun culture not only represents an oft discussed security threat to the nation but also puts lives at risk every day in Lebanese homes and recreational spaces. Yet, the issue remains far from the top of the agenda of Lebanon’s civil society.
Official statistics for accidental gun death and injuries in Lebanon are not readily available; however, an Internal Security Forces source assures The Daily Star that such deaths are not uncommon. Some, like in Imad’s case, involve pistols or assault weapons, but the ISF source says the vast majority of accidents happen with hunting rifles.
Because hunting is considered a sport, families allow children from the age of 11 or 12 to hold and use these guns, he says, a practice which often results in accidents, between fathers and sons or friends.
He mentions a recent relatively high-profile incident that took place in Baaqline. In the early hours of the morning on Feb. 2, Claudia Theophilus, a 42-year-old Malaysian Al-Jazeera English journalist, was accidentally killed while on vacation with Lebanese friends.
Theophilus was, reportedly, “playing with a rifle.”
Guns, both hunting and assault weapons, are common household objects and more often than not are casually stored.
Paul, who hails from a small village in Khanshara, is now in his mid-20s. Like many Lebanese children, guns were a part of his upbringing.
Today, Paul has two AK-47s and two markarov pistols, all of which he inherited from his father.
He stores these arms in a regular closet. The guns are unloaded, although the ammunition is kept in a box next to them. The closet is unlocked.
Is Paul worried about curious children exploring these weapons?
“I’m not worried about kids,” he says. “I don’t have kids at home.”
However, Paul does acknowledge that “accidents happen.”
Like everyone else, he can list off examples: some near misses, others unnecessary tragedies.
“Once my neighbors were playing with a small gun. There were two brothers and seven or eight guys in total there. One brother was pointing [the gun] at the head of each guy, just playing. He pointed it at his brother, his brother pushed the gun away with his hand, and it went off. The bullet hit the floor and then the kitchen cupboard door.”
Other stories from Paul’s area have less happy outcomes.
“Two years ago a 16-year-old died. He was playing with an automatic hunting rifle, he accidentally shot it, and he died,” Paul explains.
But, he marvels: “When kids die no one talks about what the f**k they were doing with guns. There was anger over the death, but guns weren’t the main thing.”
The starting point for any discussion on gun culture and small arms proliferation in Lebanon is unfailingly its unique context: a sectarian society that has lived through 15 years of civil war followed by occupations, invasions, assassinations and other security incidents.
Held perhaps originally for protection, weapons have become integral to the expression of emotion in Lebanon.
“If we are happy or sad, in both situations we use shooting to express [ourselves],” says Fadi Abi Allam, president of local NGO Permanent Peace Movement.
Yet, while its gun culture is certainly in some ways distinctive, in others it is typical of the region, says Aaron Karp, a senior consultant with the Small Arms Survey in Switzerland and lecturer in political science at Old Dominion University in the United States.
“For a lot of men ownership of a firearm is an important sign of personal completeness,” Karp told The Daily Star by telephone.
Paul makes a similar point. “Guns are associated with manliness,” he says, describing how as a young teenager he was fascinated with his father’s weapons, wanting to see them, know about them, carry them.
“My father taught me about guns when I was 16,” he says, adding: “I first fired a gun on New Year’s Eve with my dad.”
Perhaps because gun culture is so complex and so embedded, Permanent Peace Movement is one of few organizations actively taking on the issue of arms control in Lebanon.
Seated behind his desk in an office overcrowded with books and binders, Abi Allam pulls out a folder. Inside are press clippings, which he proceeds to leaf through one by one, reading aloud as he goes. It is a sorrowful accounting of the country’s recent history of unnecessary death: accidents, arguments that escalate into gunfights and celebratory gunfire gone tragically wrong all feature.
Abi Allam does not have official figures for the number of deaths resultant of each of these contexts. However, he says that in the first nine months of 2011 there were some 1,200 crimes involving guns in Lebanon.
“I think this is a very high ratio for a country of less than 4 million,” he says, adding that the gun crime appears to be worsening nowadays, with an increase in armed kidnappings and repeated outbreaks of clashes between rival neighborhoods in Tripoli and with the Lebanese Army.
“What’s disappointing nowadays,” Abi Allam says, “is that there is no initiative to address the situation [of arms] in Lebanon.”
Law 137 covering arms trading and possession in Lebanon dates from 1959 and is therefore outdated, he adds.
A study conducted by PPM and presented to Parliament several months ago points out that under this law private citizens are only permitted to possess “arms and ammunition that are not considered military.”
But, the study adds, “the law does not explicitly mention small arms and light weapons, nor does it define them.”
It also notes that citizens should have a one-year renewable permit from the Army Command and Defense Ministry weapons falling into the above category. Moreover, civilians are only allowed permits for a maximum of two weapons.
However, the PPM study states: “What is happening is that permits allowing their holders to carry various arms are being provided, in violation of the law and without specifying the number of weapons every person is allowed to carry.”
Lebanese citizens have come to expect such selective doffing of the law. “They give permits to people close to the state, party, dealers, etc.,” Paul says casually.
Of course, with nonstate actors claiming a legitimate right to bear arms, the issue of complete disarmament, while clearly a desirable endpoint, is not realistic in the short term, Abi Allam explains.
Indeed, its political sensitivity may be one reason there is not more activism from civil society groups on the issue. Speaking to The Daily Star anonymously, one activist articulates why she thinks there is reluctance to address the matter.
Arms control is “kind of a monster of an issue,” she says, adding that civil society groups have so many issues to deal with that there’s already a “bit of an overload.”
But, “more importantly,” she notes that “it is just so politically sensitive that taking a position on it [arms] puts you on one side or the other of the political spectrum.”
Taking up a position that places an activist organization firmly in either of Lebanon’s rival political camps, may ultimately “distract from its purpose” and “limit beneficiaries.”
But Abi Allam says the answer isn’t to ask for complete disarmament today or tomorrow. (In any event, disarmament wouldn’t address the danger posed by the careless handling of hunting guns.) Rather, the solution is to take small steps.
Abi Allam lists among these steps the study his organization submitted to Parliament, which makes several recommendations for regulating gun ownership, as well as a number of initiatives it has undertaken to raise awareness about gun safety. He mentions a documentary PPM made on the misuse of arms before producing a brochure, distributed in 20 schools across the country, about arms safety in the home.
First you encourage people not to have arms within the home, he says, then, if arms are considered necessary, you teach them how to use and store them safety.
Somewhat ironically, however, you would be more likely to come upon this brochure in Libya than Lebanon.
While approximately 2,000 copies are in circulation here, a Libyan organization that spotted the document at a regional conference held in Lebanon on the misuse of small arms has printed and distributed some 200,000 copies in the North African country. – Additional reporting by Wassim Mroueh