Gun-toting Yemenis wish they could lay down their arms

Yemenis have long owned a lot of guns. But proliferation in urban areas is worrying many, who say they would happily give up their firearms if the government provided better security.

Mohamed al-Sayaghi/Reuters
A boy plays with a toy gun in Sanaa, Yemen, October 18, 2013.

Like most Yemeni men, Mahmoud Shahra owns a gun and has known how to use it since childhood, although the 25-year-old activist used to leave his weapons at home. But since the politically motivated kidnapping of one of his close friends earlier this year, Shahra has carried a gun at nearly all times. 

He seems at ease with his AK-47, but his demeanor hides internal disquiet. “Even if I feel safer and more confident, I feel like I’m betraying my values when I carry a gun,” he says. “Still, the current security environment has forced me to do so.” 

Yemen has long had a reputation as one of the world’s most heavily armed nations, ranking second only to the United States in gun ownership per capita. While the bevy of weapons is an indisputable fact, many here are quick to push back against stereotypes that use Yemen’s more than 10 million guns to paint the nation as a land of trigger-happy savages.

And even many Yemenis who treat their firearm as an element of their daily wardrobe harbor a deep ambivalence regarding their weapons. A key goal of the protesters who took to the streets during the uprising that resulted in longtime president Ali Abdullah Saleh’s ouster was a state with a strong rule of law that could protect its citizens. Two years later, Yemenis say that more than ever, they’ve been forced to take such matters into their own hands.  

The sight of armed men has become nearly as common in cities as in many parts of the Yemeni countryside. Patrons of upscale restaurants in the capital can be seen dining with rifles dangling across their backs and social gatherings often contain enough weaponry to arm a small militia.

For foreign visitors, the ubiquity is jarring, but they often seem divorced from their firepower, functioning more as a decorative article of clothing, like the ceremonial daggers that many Yemeni men wear.

Yemen’s cultural affinity for firearms dates back more than a century. Both the Ottomans and British used gifts of guns to curry favor with local notables, while cold war proxy battles fueled an arms surplus that has still left local weapons markets awash with cheap Soviet-era rifles and pistols. 

Along the way, small arms have come to serve as a sort of status symbol, even among the Yemeni elite. Businessmen go about their daily routine with pistols holstered to their hip, while many politicians and tribal leaders habitually travel with coteries of armed guards – ostensibly a security measure that also functions as a blunt statement about their power. 

Although weapons are used to convey clout, many Yemenis insist they are for defensive purposes and cast the decision as a precaution that's become almost necessary the past few years. Legal restrictions once limited the number of guns on city streets, but with the 2011 uprising, which divided security forces and sparked unrest across the country, enforcement became lax as increasing instability spurred once-reluctant Yemenis to arm themselves.

“In early 2011, a cousin of mine advised me to carry a weapon, and I haven’t left the house without my pistol or my rifle since,” says Haykel Bafana, a Sanaa-based lawyer. “I’ve never shot anyone with either, and hopefully never will. Still, I think they’ve played a key role in my protecting me – even on the symbolic level alone. In the current environment, I’d be foolish to leave it up to the government to guarantee the safety of myself and my family.”

Although many consider the decision to carry to be justified, the proliferation of weapons in urban areas has raised alarm. Many in Sanaa see the frequent sight of armed men as a troubling sign of a breakdown in law and order. Some have gone as far as to tie it to a string of assassinations targeting security officials across the country, arguing that the normality of armed men has allowed nefarious elements to take advantage.

The government has tried to reduce the number of guns on the streets of the capital, largely through upping the presence of security forces. But their attempts have done little to quell anxiety. Sanaa residents complain that crackdowns on unlicensed weapons have only netted a handful of guns and say that an increase in the number of checkpoints has done little more than increase gridlock.

“I want guns off the streets,” said Mohamed, a cab driver, passing through a police checkpoint in central Sanaa. “But, even more than this, I want a government that could actually make that happen.” 

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