February 17, 2010:
Yemen has a problem with weapons. There are too many of them in the hands of the 20 million Yemeni men, women and children. There are estimated to be more than 50 million firearms in the country, most of them owned by thousands of small arms dealers. These merchants have long supplied neighboring countries (Saudi Arabia, Oman, Somalia, Eritrea, Sudan) with rifles, pistols and assault rifles. A network of experienced smugglers used donkeys, and small boats, to deliver the goods. But things have changed. For the last two years, police have had a law that allows them to shut down hundreds of arms markets, that long operated openly throughout the country. That drove the business underground, pursued by the police (who have seized over a million weapons so far).
Perhaps a more effective tactic has been interrupting the supply of ammunition. Although most weapons available are Russian designs, there are dozens of older models, some a century old, many using ammo that is hard to get in the best of times. There are artisans who can make ammo for you (especially if you have the right empty brass cartridges), but Yemen is the poorest of all Middle Eastern states, and the biggest market is for cheap ammo. Thus an increasing number of these weapons have little, or no, ammo. Or if they do have ammunition, the stuff is old and unreliable.
Attempts to pass a law regulating individual ownership of weapons has consistently failed to pass in parliament. Most Yemenis consider it an ancient right to be armed, and the politicians know this is a touchy subject. But Yemenis are less excitable when it comes to how much ammo they have, or how well stocked their local arms dealer is, so the government is simply following the path of least resistance.