Stray bullets shot in celebration lead to lives lost in the Middle East

An Iraqi shoots celebratory gunfire in the southern city of Nasiriyah after the capture of ousted Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in his hometown of Tikrit 14 December 2003. (AFP)

In some Middle Eastern countries, people fire guns into the air in celebration, but it’s a dangerous tradition that has cost lives.

Examples of fatalities across region due to celebratory gunfire abound.

In Lebanon alone, 27 people were either killed, or injured as a result of celebratory gunfire between 2017 and 2019, according to a source close to the country’s Internal Security Forces. Data for the broader region was difficult to find.

In Jordan, a man was shot dead by his cousin earlier this year, in an apparent accident on the day the victim was released from prison.

“[Celebratory gunfire] is illegal according to the penal code and other laws governing the matter,” Jordan’s former Minister of State for Media Mohammad Momani told Al Arabiya in 2015.

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In Iraq, the practice is common during sporting events, and when the Iraqi football team defeated Vietnam in 2007’s Asia Cup, three deaths were recorded in Baghdad as fans celebrated with widespread gunshots.

“The firing to celebrate happy occasions, as well as sad ones, is a very twisted expression of extreme emotions that only learned how to exist by force,” Nadim Mohsen, philosophy and cultural studies professor at the Lebanese American University, told Al Arabiya English, explaining that people who adopt this tradition experience feelings that are expressed on extremities of the spectrum.

The phenomenon increased in Iraq after the 2003 American invasion took place, when government facilities and military weapons stores were looted and the weapons quickly spread into civilians’ hands all over the country, according to a Human Rights report.

Several hundred armed demonstrators and local residents take to the streets of the town of Fallujah, 50 kms west of Baghdad, 16 December, 2003, chanting pro-Saddam slogans and letting off celebratory gunfire into the air, pledging their allegiance to their deposed leader, and chanting, “We will sacrifice ourselves to you Saddam, with our blood, with our soul.” (AFP)

Several hundred armed demonstrators and local residents take to the streets of the town of Fallujah, 50 kms west of Baghdad, 16 December, 2003, chanting pro-Saddam slogans and letting off celebratory gunfire into the air, pledging their allegiance to their deposed leader, and chanting, “We will sacrifice ourselves to you Saddam, with our blood, with our soul.” (AFP)

One incident in Lebanon sticks out. An eight-year-old girl was killed in 2016 when a bullet struck her from a nearby funeral procession.

In the same year, the penalty for firing guns in the air was increased, including a minimum prison sentence of 10 years and a fine if a death resulted from the act. The amended law does not allow for the substitution of fines for prison sentences.

Lawyer Majd Harb explained that “a 1959 law states that anyone firing [guns] in residential areas or in a crowd, whether their gun is licensed or not, faces up to three years in prison and a fine.”

But firearm ownership remains widespread in Lebanon more than two decades after the end of the civil war, and the law remains practically unenforced, a source close to the Internal Security Forces told Al Arabiya English.

“It’s a tradition that needs to change,” he said.

Yet, it persist, and beloved Lebanese football player Mohammad Atwi's recent death is testament to this.

“This violent manifestation of emotions in social occasions – marriages, funerals, graduations – is not disconnected from the political readiness to engage in civil wars and mini-wars that has marked the history of Lebanon,” Mohsen said.

Changing the narrative

In 2018, a campaign by Permanent Peace Movement launched a campaign that targeted brides and grooms-to-be. The Eleguns (a combination of the words “elegant” and “guns”) program was a fake “gun service for weddings” and couples could customize their own gun show, choosing from professional shooters and guns. But couples were then taught the risks associated with the practice.

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Local youths produced a media campaign also in 2018 to draw attention to the dangers of celebratory gunfire, the “Farha Taysha” which translates to “Stray bullet kills joy.” The campaign originated from some of the youths’ personal experiences where relatives, friends, or acquaintances were killed by a stray bullet.

“Bullets shot upwards do not simply vanish into space,” an angry citizen told Al Arabiya English.

A bullet shot in the air can return to the Earth three quarters of a mile from where it was fired and up to 30 seconds later, one study published in the International Journal of Impact Engineering found.

“To some, and in the lack of cultured means of being, firing arms is their way of assuring their presence among and supremacy over the many,” Mohsen told Al Arabiya English.

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Last Update: Monday, 05 October 2020 KSA 17:45 - GMT 14:45
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