Taking aim at tradition, Lebanon’s celebratory gunshots under fire

Officially, celebratory gunfire is illegal in Lebanon, where firearm ownership remains widespread after the country’s civil war

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Whether its joy, political passion or grief, for many Lebanese, there’s only one way to show it: by lifting a gun and firing off rounds into the air.

But the deadly practice, a tradition in many Arab countries, has attracted new scrutiny and police attention following a spate of deaths and serious injuries in incidents involving indiscriminate gunfire.

“It felt like a fire had burst into my chest,” said 15-year-old Hussein Azab, whose chest was pierced by a bullet fired during celebrations after municipal elections in May.

One person was killed and three others were wounded in celebratory gunfire that day.

The following month, a child was killed and a woman wounded in separate incidents by people firing guns to celebrate official exam results.

READ ALSO: After royal condemnation, will Jordan’s celebratory gunfire stop?

“I was with my mum, my brother and my aunt on our way to my grandfather’s house at around 8:30 (pm) when I was hit,” said Azab, who was shot in southern Beirut.

“The blood started pouring out of my chest and I was very afraid. I thought I would die,” he said, struggling to recount his ordeal as he gazed at the 15-centimeter (six-inch) scar running down his chest.

The experience has also scarred him psychologically, leaving him afraid of loud noises, particularly fireworks.

“My life changed. I’ve become irritable and afraid all the time. I can’t sleep, and if I do, I wake up from panic attacks,” he said.

Hussein’s mother Wafaa was angry and tearful. “They were celebrating winning elections while we were crying blood.”

With the deadly incidents making headlines, Lebanon’s police force says it has made more than 130 arrests of people firing in the air since early June.

It is also encouraging people to report shooters via a special hotline.

Police spokesman Joseph Mousallem called the practice “a sick, fatal phenomenon.”

“Civilians must come together to stop shooting and not be silent about the shooters,” he told AFP.

“This isn’t an issue of tradition. It is a crime that leads to death.”

Officially, celebratory gunfire is illegal in Lebanon, where firearm ownership remains widespread more than two decades after the end of its 1975-1990 civil war.

A 1959 law states “anyone firing in residential areas or in a crowd, whether their gun is licensed or not” faces up to three years in prison or a fine.

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