Gun-loving culture deeply rooted in US and Yemen

A 2016 survey indicated that the United States has 88 guns per 100 residents; Yemen has 54.
Sunday 01/04/2018
An arms dealer displays a rifle in his shop in Jihana, about 30km east of Sanaa. (Reuters)
Thriving business. An arms dealer displays a rifle in his shop in Jihana, about 30km east of Sanaa. (Reuters)

It was an impressive sight. Hundreds of thousands of young people filling Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington protesting America’s love of guns. The protest was led by teenagers who survived a mass shooting at a high school in Florida. They spoke eloquently about the need for common sense gun controls.

However eloquent the message was, they face a steep uphill battle. Americans have a legendary love for guns. Led by controversial groups such as the National Rifle Association (NRA), Americans have overlooked mass shootings at movie theatres, churches, malls and schools to defend their right to arm themselves as much as they like. The school shootings included one in which 20 5- and 6-year-olds were killed.

So, it’s hardly surprising that the reasons Americans revere firearms are mirrored in a country with the world’s second highest per capita rate of gun ownership — Yemen.

On the surface, the United States and Yemen have little in common. The United States is a superpower both militarily and economically. Yemen, racked by poverty and civil war, is barely able to function. Look closer, however, and many of the cultural threads about guns are the same in both countries.

A 2016 survey indicated that the United States has 88 guns per 100 residents; Yemen has 54. The survey only dealt with individually owned firearms.

In Yemen, guns are a sign of status and power, which is important in a land where tribalism rules. In America, gun ownership is a status symbol within many communities. In rural US communities, you stand out if you don’t have at least a rifle.

Guns are openly carried in both Yemen and the United States. In Yemen, open-carry is for protection from tribal enemies, against warring groups or terrorists. Many Americans would tell you they open-carry for the same reasons, not least personal security and protection against terrorists. This, although an American has a better chance of being hit twice by lightning than being attacked by a terrorist on home soil.

Facts matter little to hardcore gun lovers. In America, guns are used to make a political point by many conservative groups. They openly carry the mass shooter’s preferred weapon, the semi-automatic AR-15, in defence of Americans’ constitutional right to own guns.

Many gun owners in Yemen and the United States share another trait, too. They own not just one gun but many. It is common for gun owners in both countries to have several weapons.

There is also a historical element to the two countries’ attitude towards guns. In Yemen, owning a gun is seen as part of a Yemeni’s identity. Some Americans practically worship the Second Amendment to the US Constitution, which protects their right to own guns. Upheld by the US Supreme Court, it is a right that stretches back to the American Revolution in the 18th century.

Many gun owners in both countries tend to view central government with suspicion, which has led to public violence and regular confrontation with the authorities over the years.

Finally, both countries have struggled with laws that restrict gun ownership. In the United States, the NRA has fought almost every attempt to introduce checks, limit sales and the possession of guns. The NRA has even seen to an expansion of gun rights in many US states.

Yemen has some of the most restrictive gun laws in the Arab world but these are rarely enforced. From 2007-10, when the government tried to enforce the rules, thousands of weapons were turned in but the “Arab spring” changed that. The political and security situation fell into chaos and people once again felt the need to arm themselves. All the good work of the early 2000s was left behind.

The rate of violent death per capita is higher in Yemen than in the United States but there are more public mass shootings in America than in any other country in the world.

There is very little chance that gun ownership rates will change in either country despite the well-meaning acts of American teenagers or government efforts in Yemen. Which means that gun deaths will continue to mount in both countries and they will stay at the top of the list of gun ownership.