Armed to the Teeth: Is Serbia really ready to surrender its guns?4 min read
In response to political and social pressures following mass shootings in Serbia, the government has issued a one-month amnesty period for any civilians wanting to surrender their firearms, without legal repercussions. Over 13,500 weapons have so far been collected, but it begs the question: Will Serbian society ever be decontaminated from firearms?
On 3 May, a seemingly ordinary day, a teenager walked into his primary school in Belgrade and opened fire, killing eight students and a security guard and injuring several others. Just one day later, a man terrorised two villages, reportedly firing at random, killing eight and injuring 14. In just two days, Serbia witnessed more mass shootings than in the past decade, and for the first time, it would drastically change the public discussion on guns in Serbia.
With no time for the community to grieve, and collective security anxiety at an all time high, thousands of citizens have taken to the streets to protest against gun violence. From May to early June, mass protests of thousands have occurred on the streets of Belgrade, calling for the government to take action. Since the amnesty period began on 8 May, thousands of weapons, even grenades and anti-tank rocket launchers, have been given up. Police say over 300,000 rounds of ammunition have also been surrendered. Although many residents have been more than willing to surrender firearms, it is nearly impossible to tell exactly how many weapons are truly in Serbian households.
According to the Small Arms Survey, Serbia maintains at least 39 civilian firearms per 100 persons, making this nation the highest saturated in all of Europe and third in the world. This is largely due to the Yugoslav war, which left the region littered with an estimated 4 million firearms. Not to mention, firearms trafficking remains one of the largest illicit markets in the Western Balkans and weapons factories that “used to be in decline since the end of the Cold War are working at maximum capacity to keep up with the demand.” This combination of second-hand Yugoslav era weapons and newly manufactured ones provides fertile ground for anyone looking to get their hands on firearms, whether legally or not. In fact, President Aleksandar Vučić said about half of the weaponry surrendered by civilians was illegally possessed. Considering this, it is possible that the percent of civilian firearms in Serbia is even higher than 39% given the high amount of unregistered weaponry. Additionally, since the amnesty period is for those who have their firearms illegally, it begs the question whether the citizens that do have guns legally feel inclined to give them up. As a result, Vučić informed the public that he will assist in implementing stricter gun laws, while establishing a stronger police force and dispatching authorities to schools to prevent potential violence. However, this is of course reactionary policing. To prevent gun related crimes from brewing in a school setting again, proactive policing would have a much grander effect and investing in such would contribute to minimising violence in the community as a whole, since this form of policing focuses on exterminating the desire or need to commit a crime in the first place. Instead of proposing anything that would lessen chances of gun-related crime happening in the first place, Vučić proposed audits of already known gun owners, including drug tests and psychological tests.
While Vučić is trying to establish a reactive approach towards gun violence, simultaneously the Serbian government is blaming Western values and culture for the mass shootings that have occurred this year. Despite the infamous lack of gun control in the West — specifically in the United States — the presence of guns in Serbia goes further than some inspiration from the West, and it’s possible that these protests will fall short in their mission. After all, considering the estimates of gun ownership in Serbia, 13,500 weapons being surrendered is a great first step, but it has hardly made a dent.
Although efforts with other amnesty periods have been made in the past, they were not nearly as successful due to a number of reasons. These are guns that have been passed from fathers to sons. This is a country where the mafia has its hands in the state, whose illicit markets are meticulously woven into its economy by corrupt government officials. This is also a country facing soaring tensions with its neighbours. But perhaps guns are just as cultural as they are political. Guns have been established in Serbia for quite a few decades and many still view them as power and status symbols. Conservatives in Serbia have also fueled fears of a government collapse and have claimed that the nation is full of threatening foreign agents, stirring anxiety amongst residents.
In conclusion, the long existence of millions of firearms in Serbia makes it difficult to envision the nation making drastic legislative adjustments any time soon. Similarly, Vučić’s implementation of security at schools will not turn the tides, nor will examinations of gun owners minimise the “need” to commit violent crimes. Getting to the core of why shootings happen will provide the answer to how to best prevent these events from reoccurring. Although the current momentum in disarmament has proven inspiring, two horrific mass shootings will likely not be enough to bring the changes needed.