Small Arms Trigger Alarms: Guns Kill More Arabs Every Year Than All Terrorist Bombs, Air Raids and Military Incursions Combined. Can the Cycle of Tribal or Insurgent Violence Be Ended? A New Report Suggests It Can

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IN THE CROWDED STREETS NEAR THE old town gate of Sana'a, capital of Yemen, a group of fierce bearded men bearing rifles and daggers bear down on a dilapidated Peugeot station wagon. They are neither terrorists nor thieves, but passengers for a shared taxi service to Taiz, some 250km away.

The small arms the passengers carry are part of a rich local tradition: No man feels fully dressed without at least a dagger tucked in his belt. But the cultural symbolism creates a very real potential for violence, in a country which has only recently emerged from a painful unification process.

The presence of so much weaponry (over 7m small arms in a country with a total population of 21m) has been widely seen as a major factor preventing the building of a stable civil society.

According to the recently released Small Arms Survey 2005, published by the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva, Yemen is not alone. Throughout the Middle East, private arms holdings far outstrip the conventional weapons available to police and military units. In Jordan, for example, private individuals hold twice as many guns as the nation's army and police forces combined.

The Small Arms Survey concludes that disarming at the individual level may be key to resolving regional conflicts.

The number of weapons in a society is often seen as an indicator of the potential for civil unrest or private violence. For example, the US has almost as many weapons as people, and has the world's highest rates of death and injury caused by weapons. The degree of gun control (or lack thereof) is reflected in the most recent government homicide statistics, which show that handguns murdered: 373 people in Germany, 151 people in Canada, 54 people in England and Wales, 19 people in Japan, and 11,789 people in the United States.

In the Arab world, widespread private gun ownership reflects long standing traditions. Weapons were once needed for &fence as well as a means of hunting for food. Current gun ownership often stands as a symbol of that tradition. Few Lebanese, Turkish or Yemeni households actually hunt for the meat they eat. But in all three cultures, gun display is widespread.

"In tribal areas, the gun is a symbol of manhood more than a weapon of violence," says Michael Izady, professor of history at Pace University, and a lecturer at the US Special Forces' Joint Special Ops University. "Machismo translates itself into gun ownership."

Not surprisingly, then, efforts to curb ownership have met with resistance in most Arab countries. But there have been some exceptions.

According to the Small Arms Survey, those exceptions occur where there is a combination of public and government will.

Morocco, for example, has seen private gun ownership steadily decline, first under colonial French rule, and then through a sustained post-independence rejection of gun culture. The governments of Mohammed V and Hassan II could draw on broad public support, underscored by a determination to avoid the anarchic conditions that prevailed during and after Algeria's independence struggle.

In Morocco today, although civilian use of hunting guns is permitted, and some ceremonial display is indulged (now largely for the benefit of tourists), the central government has discouraged private ownership as a means to further reduce tribal violence and sectarian rivalries.

In Lebanon, 10 years of civil war, which descended into anarchy as armies of children battled in the rubble of Beirut, led to a broad public consensus that the private armies had to be curbed, and bullets replaced with ballots. The result has been a voluntary reduction in gun ownership and use, initially enforced by the Syrian Army, aided by a massive inflow of Saudi and expatriate Lebanese capital.

It has not been a smooth transition--occasional assassinations still punctuate political debate--but the arms and armies that tore the country apart during the last two decades of the 20th century have largely been set aside for more constructive economic engagement. …