BEIRUT: Celebratory gunfire at events as diverse as weddings and graduations is common in Lebanon, with the peppered discharge of an AK-47 heard regularly in Beirut and beyond. While activists and politicians have long campaigned against the practice, in the lead-up to this New Year’s celebrations, one initiative has taken a new approach to help put a stop to it. The organization behind the drive is Lebanese NGO the Permanent Peace Movement. This November, the organization created a fake company – aptly named Eleguns, and took to the stands of Wedding Follies 2017 – Lebanon’s biggest wedding exhibition.
The faux company lured browsing couples by advertising the opportunity to hire a dedicated, professional shooter for their ceremony’s celebratory gunfire. Customers were led to customize everything from the gun used, to the shooters outfit – AK-47s and M4 carbines were both on the menu.
After first selecting their shooter – 31-year-old Hala comes at a steep $400, but the bearded Rayyan is just $300 – then came time to sign a contract. “Many were very interested in it; some of the couples wanted a very special wedding,” PPM founder Fadi Abi Allam told The Daily Star. But it’s here where couples are confronted with bleak facts regarding casualty rates caused by stray bullets and asked to sign a pledge to keep their wedding gunfire free.
Though celebratory gunfire is officially illegal in Lebanon, carrying punishments of between six months and three years and upward of 10 years in cases where death is caused, prosecution is rare due to poor legislation and corruption.
But it is still prevalent; in the four-month period from July to October this year, there were 90 incidents of injury or death from celebratory gunfire across Lebanon.
With almost 50,000 weddings taking place in Lebanon every year, the potential for even higher levels of tragedy is vast.
In June of this year, an 88-year-old man was killed after being hit by a stray bullet following celebrations of Brevet results, while in August, a 21-year-old man was killed by celebratory fire from a wedding in the Bekaa Valley.
“Worldwide, 90 percent of victims of armed violence occur outside of conflict. The problem is not just with our enemies – the terrorists and Israel – it’s with us,” Abi Allam added.
More than 1,500 couples signed the pledge at Wedding Follies. “We were able to convince every single couple to sign. We had an answer for every question,” Alla said.
But PPM and Eleguns are challenging more than just gunfire at weddings; they are challenging a cultural norm that can be witnessed at all sorts of events across Lebanon: “There are arms in every house; the law doesn’t encourage people to hand them in. This is a historic challenge – the culture exists in every country in the Middle East and North Africa,” Abi Allam said.
The wedding show stunt is part of what he calls a “comprehensive plan” to fight “the misuse of celebration.”
“We are raising awareness with events like this, we are working with Parliament to change the laws, and we are trying to involve community leaders, so they work with us, not against us.”
But even when aimed, bullets don’t discriminate, as Abi Allam points out. “This is an issue that concerns all of Lebanon, it’s not a political issue. People from every party are at risk from the stray bullets.” He insists that “we are not just trying to disarm any single group or party; we want to reduce the level of armed violence across Lebanon.”
The campaign has drawn significant support online. A video of the wedding stunt has garnered 150,000 views on Facebook and Prime Minister Saad Hariri even tweeted his support for it.
The campaign is by no means the first effort to bring an end to celebratory gunfire in Lebanon, however. Efforts to pass legislation increasing the punishment for those partaking in the celebration failed in 2016, while earlier this month, the Interior Ministry asked governors across Lebanon to take much stricter measures on New Year’s Eve when a significant amount of the gunfire is expected. The ministry added that many of the bullets fired land on, or near, the airport, potentially endangering civilian aircraft.
The campaign has undoubtedly caught the eye of many who previously thought that shooting in the air was a harmless act of celebration, but with the activity so widespread, the challenge to bring an end to such senseless casualties still has a long way to go.