Unlicensed weapons

13 June 2024

Profitable black market for unlicensed guns in Jordan

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Badia Al-Sawan, Salma Nassar and Saba Mansour

Hisham Al-Daqasmeh, with his left leg bound in a piece of cloth and looking shorter than the right leg, bemoans what happened to him in 2019, when he was shot with a pump-action weapon, and was taken to hospital to begin a process of treatment that could take years.

In one sentence he sums up a problem that has been facing Jordan for decades: “Even a small child has a gun.” Now in his thirties, Al-Daqasmeh says that firearms are so widely available that people are wary of getting into an argument in case the other person pulls a gun in a moment of anger.

His eyes wandering, Al-Daqasmeh recalls the events of that day. He says he was living in Irbid, when a group of youths one day began attacking his car and, without hesitation, shot him in the right leg.

Uncontrolled weapons

What happened to Al-Daqasmeh is just one of hundreds of such cases that occur repeatedly in Jordan, because of a culture of (unlicensed) gun ownership. This is especially prevalent in Jordan’s southern provinces.

In 2014, a study by Mahmoud Al-Juneid, of the Jordanian Political Science Association, showed that 21 percent of the population of Irbid possessed a weapon, i.e. more than one in five. By contrast, in the southern provinces the rate was 42 per cent.

According to published reports, former Minister of the Interior Salameh Hammad put the number of unlicensed weapons at around 10 million. This compares to 350,000 licensed weapons, according to the study mentioned above, while other reports estimated the number of unlicensed weapons at one million.

An underground trade

Ahmed (not his real name) is sitting in a car with another man, who has brought him some magazines for an M16 assault rifle. This is one of many unlicensed guns owned by Ahmed, an arms dealer. He also owns a number of licensed guns, some of which he stores in the cars he owns.

Ahmed grew up in a wholly Bedouin environment south of Amman where there is a plethora of weapons and where a gun is the most important thing to have. A Spanish 9mm Star pistol was the first gun Ahmed owned in the 1980s. It came to him hidden in a bale of clothes. Ahmed recalls that he was only a teenager at the time, and that, despite his young age, his passion for owning guns began then.

Ahmed used to frequent the licensed guns dealers at the arms market on Amman’s King Talal Street. To buy and sell unlicensed weapons, these dealers operate through a merchant who acts as an intermediary between them and the customers, according to Ahmed. He admits that he used to trade in unlicensed weapons but said that he stopped doing so once he was happy with the number of guns he had.

Talal Street tells part of the story

At one end of King Talal Street, Muhammad Al-Huneiti sits inside his small arms shop, which he says has been open for sixty-two years. “We trade and maintain weapons here. We sell the kinds of rifles, cartridges and pistols that are allowed in Jordan,” he says.

Al-Huneiti explains the steps to owning a licensed weapon: “Anyone with a Jordanian national ID number has the right to purchase two pistols and three rifles. To do this the person must obtain an invoice from the dealer called a security invoice, which has various bits of information on it, and shows the source of the weapon. This invoice has to be submitted, along with the application, to the Directorate of Public Security.”

The request will either be accepted or refused within a maximum of 30 days, according to Al-Huneiti, who says Jordanian law bans only the sale and purchase of automatic weapons.

In an attempt to document this, one of the authors of this report went to the security centre to obtain a license for her late grandfather’s gun. The security officer told her that, as she was only 23, she was underage. This is contradicted by Jordanian law, which stipulates 21 as the legal age for having a gun license, for both males and females.

The reporter then went back to the security centre, where she was informed of other conditions that contradicted what she had previously been told. They also told her that she needed to make an inventory of what she had inherited, and that the remaining heirs had to renounce their claim to own the weapon.

Concerns over gun licensing

“Fear that a gun may be confiscated, and the ease with which a gun owner can be identified, especially when some offence is committed or there is a shooting incident,” are factors that dissuade many people from licensing their weapons, according to Muhammad Al-Huneiti, the gun shop owner.

Ahmed (not his real name) agrees with Al-Huneiti on what induces people not to license their guns. But he highlights also a deep-rooted fear among people that, if there is a shooting incident, the first people to be arrested are those the authorities know possess (licensed) weapons.

Social networking sites: unsupervised arms trading

Near Ma’an Governorate, we met Uday (not his real name), a young man in his twenties from Kerak, who seemed proud of the idea of ​​owning a weapon: “Round here, boys comes out of their mother’s womb already bearing a gun.”

Although Uday denies owning any guns, at the same time he says he knows many people in his circle who have unlicensed weapons, having bought them individually. “That’s something common around here, and people trade in guns too.”

Uday also says that social media sites, especially closed Facebook groups and apps like Signal and Telegram, are a market for buying and selling unlicensed weapons.

Our investigation team used keywords to search Facebook to try and reach pages and groups specialising in buying and selling weapons. They uncovered pages and groups with “names” designed not to raise suspicion. A marketplace bearing the name “halal” (Kosher) was a closed Facebook page carrying photos and posts on buying and selling livestock and sheep. But in fact, it was selling unlicensed weapons.

The team also found other groups on Telegram selling “pump-action rifles, Beretta pistols, Glocks” and other guns. “Customers” in these groups do not use special terms or “codes.” But within the groups there are private sub-groups, which you cannot join without the approval of the supervisor.

Through various people, the investigation team managed to get in touch with an arms dealer. One of the team called him to say she wanted to meet to buy a “piece”, giving no more details. As soon as the call ended, the dealer posted a picture of a Kalashnikov assault rifle in his WhatsApp profile, asked the reporter to take a look, and then deleted the image immediately.

Borders difficult to control

Since the beginning of the war in Syria, levels of cross-border smuggling from Syria to Jordan have gone up, according to published reports. Smugglers bring weapons and narcotics into Jordan either through official border crossings, such as Al-Jaber, or by infiltrating the border at places like Thaghrat Al-Gubb in Mafraq, or through the mountainous areas separating the Jordan-Syria border, out of sight of Jordanian army watchtowers, and on to the city of Ramtha.

After official border crossings with Syria re-opened in 2018, Bassem (not his real name) managed to smuggle in weapons and ammunition on nine occasions, before he was caught trying a tenth time. To do this, Bassem hid the weapons by putting them inside the spoiler on the back of his car, wrapped tightly in tin foil so that they would not be picked up by the X-ray machine at the Jaber border crossing.

A weapon as a source of wealth

Samir Habashneh, the former interior minister, says that Bedouin and tribal culture in Jordan, especially in the southern governorates, encourages the possession of weapons, which they regard as the source of both security and wealth. This explains the “weak security control” over gun ownership in the southern governorates, compared to the capital.

The former interior minister is unconcerned about escalating gun ownership, seeing it as “necessary for the protection of Jordanians from inevitable danger,” as he puts it. But Habashneh does underline the importance of having a well-organised process of acquiring and legalising weapons as part of the national security structure.

Article 11 of the Weapons and Ammunition Law No. 34 of 1952

Anyone who manufactures, imports, possesses, transfers, sells, buys, or mediates in the purchase or sale of any gun or automatic weapon without a license with the intention of using it in an illicit manner shall be punished by life imprisonment with hard labour and the weapon will be confiscated.

Unclear gun regulations

To possess a weapon, Jordanian law requires that a person be of Jordanian nationality, be at least 21 years of age, and not have any convictions for misdemeanours or felonies registered against him. Psychologist Basil Al-Hamad believes these conditions are not sufficient to guarantee the mental competence of a gun owner, and that the ease with which it is possible to get hold of a weapon may be pushing up the crime rate.

Al-Hamad points out that the law on gun licensing is based on the “principle of reliability,” but that relying only on “absence of conviction for a misdemeanour or felony” as a condition for eligibility for possessing a weapon, is not enough. Al-Hamad believes that a gun is a complex instrument that requires a person to be properly trained in handling it, before being granted the right to acquire one. Al-Hamad thinks there should be medical committees that can examine the state of mind of applicants for a gun license.

But Samir Habashneh, the former interior minister, argues that the competent security authorities already investigate the person and his mental competence, even though the law does not explicitly state that they should. Habashneh also observes that the minister of interior has the legal power to grant a license for an automatic weapon to certain people, such as those in prominent social positions.

A law that is yet to see the light of day

A “new draft law” that would prohibit possession and carrying of weapons and make it mandatory to hand them over to the relevant authorities has sparked huge controversy in Jordan, particularly as it also covers licensed weapons.

When the law was drawn up, former interior minister Salameh Hammad called on Jordanians to hand in weapons within six months, in return for a pledge of appropriate compensation. The justification he gave for this was the serious security situation caused by the proliferation of guns, which meant that the Weapons and Ammunition Law had to be revised.

Hammad argues that the smuggling of large quantities of arms from Syria to Jordan requires changes to the parts of the law on gun licencing and acquisition and to the terms under which a person is or is not permitted to possess a gun.

Khaled Ramadan, former MP and member of the legal committee that discussed the new draft law in 2019, says that 92 percent of recorded offences in Jordan – shootings, assaults, or other crimes – are committed using unlicensed weapons.

Ramadan points out that all weapons should be in the hands of the state, and that the duty of defending the nation falls solely on the shoulders of the army and security institutions.

The new draft law completely prohibits the carrying, selling, buying, possessing or importing of any type of hunting rifle, operating with either fixed or mobile magazines. The law also bans the carrying of licensed weapons inside official buildings, universities and scientific institutes, or at public functions, conferences, meetings or marches.

This draft law has been widely supported, and many Jordanians hope it will be effective in controlling the possession and legalisation of weapons. But, up to the date of publication of this report, it is yet to see the light of day.

We asked the Jordanian Ministry of Interior to comment on the way the security services have handled the issue of widespread possession of unlicensed firearms. This was its response:

“The laws in force criminalise possession of and trading in firearms. Every unlicensed firearm that is seized is confiscated and the required penalties are imposed on the person in whose possession the weapon is found. Concerning the existence of hotspots, or areas where the sale and acquisition of weapons is widespread, we do not regard this as realistic, given that possessing and trading in weapons is a matter that is being tackled constantly. On the merchandising of weapons, this is being followed up by the competent security services. It is also important to note that preparation of a new draft law on weapons and ammunition has been completed, and this will increase the penalties for possession of and trading in weapons.

The investigation team was able to contact people who trade in weapons in the north, the and the south of the country. But in order not to breach Jordanian law, we refrained from purchasing any weapon, though it would have been easy to do so.