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Yemen, awash in guns, wary about unrest

Yemen has the highest guns-per-capita ratio in the world after the US. Tribesmen – some of whom have camped out in Sanaa's Tahrir Square – are widely said to have grenades, mortars, and even a rare tank.

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Lack of federal rule of law in Yemen’s countryside has created a ethos of “using my gun to take my rights,” says Ayesh Awas, a researcher at the Sheba Center for Strategic Studies in Sanaa who has examined small-arms proliferation in Yemen.

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“Weapons are not the main reason for internal conflicts, but they certainly make our conflicts more intense,” Mr. Awas says. “The presence of weapons encourages crimes.”

New laws, weapons seizures

The Yemeni government has made efforts to increase gun control in recent years.

In 1992, the Yemeni government passed a new regulation that prohibited carrying firearms in major cities, although it wasn’t until 2007 until authorities readily enforced the law. The central government had to realize, says Mr. Atwany, the opposition MP, that if absolutely no checks were put on weapon usage, it could end up backfiring against them – quite literally.

“The government used to say, 'Oh, this is the culture of Yemen,' " as an excuse to not have to deal with international concern regarding Yemen’s highly armed population, he says. “But when they saw that these weapons could be used against the state because of the strong resentment growing against [the central government], they started to enforce the law.”

The official Saba News Agency reported in April that the Interior Ministry has seized around 600,000 weapons since August 2008.

But parliament members who support an increase in state-sponsored gun control say it's unclear to what extent President Ali Abdullah Saleh's regime, which also has an interest in preserving allegiances with tribal sheikhs, is willing to press for stricter measures.

A new law, which would require that every piece of weaponry be licensed, is trying to make its way through parliament, but is being held up because many supporters of Yemen’s ruling party are powerful sheikhs who don’t want the state tampering with their stashes of weapons that number into the hundreds.

“If the state had the political will it would be able to enforce [gun-control laws] all over the country,” says Ali al-Mamari of Yemen’s ruling General People’s Congress party. The problem, he says, is that “those who are considered the best people in this country are not the better educated, but the people who are trained to shoot.”

Needed: Anti-gun campaign based on honor, courage

During Yemen’s civil wars in 1962 and 1994, leaders from the opposing sides in war would hand out weapons to tribes who provided them with support, Awas explains. This included Saudi Arabia, which started providing Yemeni tribes with weapons after 1962, in order to weaken the strength of northern Yemen’s recently established, Egyptian-supported republican government.

In Yemen’s south, the Soviets who supported South Yemen’s socialist regime heavily armed the population throughout the 1970s and 80s.

Now with weapons possession ingrained in the national psyche, analysts don’t see an easy solution to disarming the country.

“Programs could be initiated that attempt to change tribal values about owning and using weapons," says a 2003 Small Arms Survey report. "The difficulty, however, will be fashioning a campaign that can play on tribal strengths – such as honor, courage, and self-control – without advancing an argument that sounds ‘Western,’ which is a derogatory term throughout the region as it signifies a lack of respect for Islam and Arab tradition.”

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