The familiar cracking of gunshots echoes though the lively summer nights here in Jordan’s capital.
But rather than a sign of crime or war, the sound of gunfire has long been a staple at celebrations across the country. It’s a sign of someone’s wedding, graduation, or even promotion. But under new regulations that aim to stamp out the practice, Jordanian grooms now face jail time for the decades-old tradition.
Public opinion turned against the practice in mid-August, when a shooting accident in the northern city of Irbid left a young boy dead. In a video that went viral on YouTube, a man is seen at a wedding reloading and firing his handgun. He attempts to reload the gun a second time, with the barrel aimed downwards towards the crowd. A bullet suddenly discharges and a six-year-old boy standing nearby crumples to the ground.
The boy, who was struck in the chest, died instantly, according to Jordanian police.
The video unleashed a firestorm in Jordan, where citizens demanded the government to ban the dangerous custom. Amid the uproar, so-called festive firing claimed further casualties: separate incidents left a man in critical condition and an eight-year-old boy seriously injured in Amman.
Such deaths have been a longstanding problem in Jordan. The country has recorded an average of two to three deaths per year over the past decade. Three people were killed and more than 40 injured in 2014 alone.
A growing backlash
On Aug. 27, Jordan’s attorney general announced that festive firing had been reclassified: The offense carries 10 years in prison if it results in an injury and up to life imprisonment if it's fatal. Police have dispatched plain-clothed officers to patrol wedding halls and tents to ensure compliance with the new restriction.
Meanwhile, the interior ministry has proposed sweeping gun safety legislation. The draft law cracks down on unlicensed weapons, toughens gun registration, and bans automatic weapons and festive firing. If passed by parliament, the legislation would mark the strictest gun law ever in Jordan, home to more than 1 million unlicensed guns in a population of 7 million. Parliament is expected to begin debating it later this year.
Even the highest authority in Jordan weighed in on the issue. In a gathering of Amman community leaders on Sunday, King Abdullah said “from now on, we will take all measures against anyone who uses arms at occasions and celebrations and we will not allow festive firing to kill another child.”
The monarch vowed that unlike the enforcement of many Jordanian laws, which leaves room for personal connections and tribal influences to avoid charges, the reclassification of festive firing will be applied equally against all citizens.
“Even if it were my son who was shooting," he said, “I would ask security bodies to take the same measures against him.”
“The death of this child probably shocked the people and definitely affected his majesty,” says Musa Shteiwi, s sociologist and the director of the University of Jordan’s Center for Strategic Studies. “This has prompted a social and political shift in the country, and enforcement agencies are applying the law equally and fully.”
'Honeymoon in prison'
To prevent more deaths, a new policy authorizes police to arrest both the groom and his father if a wedding guest fires a gun, regardless of whether either had any role or prior knowledge.
“The groom will spend his honeymoon in prison if shooting occurs during his wedding,” Public Security Department Director Maj. Gen. Atef Saudi said in a radio announcement last Monday.
Jordanian authorities have so far been true to their word. Police arrested a groom and his father for the injury of an eight-year-old child in east Amman last week. Earlier this week, they arrested the husband and son of a prominent lawmaker after a video emerged on social media of festive firing at a wedding in south Amman.
Jordanian grooms-to-be say the new policy has become an “added pressure” as they prepare for their big day, with the prospect of a wayward guest not aware of the new regulations becoming their greatest fear.
“I have to buy a new house, pay for the wedding, and now I have to play the role of the police and control a crowd of 200 people?” says Zaid, a 26-year-old groom, while touring a wedding hall in central Amman on Tuesday.
Although Zaid, who declined to give his full name, says he would comply with the regulation, the thought of jail time is giving him cold feet.
“If I knew I would face jail,” he says, “I would have stayed single.”
While legal experts have questioned the constitutionality of detaining citizens who have not committed a crime, officials privately believe that the practice will be “phased out” as more and more citizens comply with the new rules.
Regardless of whether Jordanian authorities continue their vigorous campaign against festive firing, prospective grooms say they have received the government’s message.
“I am telling my family and guests to leave their guns at the door,” Zaid says.