Serbia Reflects on Gun Ownership After Mass Shootings

In Serbia, where guns are so prolific they are a regular part of wedding and birthday celebrations, two mass shootings in two days have led to a reckoning about the role of deadly weapons in the culture.

The shootings, in which 17 people were killed and 21 were injured, led the country’s president this week to call for sweeping changes to Serbia’s gun laws. But many Serbs say a crackdown, in a country with a deep-seated tradition of gun ownership and vast quantities of illegal weapons, will be impossible.

“It’s in our culture, sons inherit guns from their fathers and grandfathers,” said Miriana Marinkovic, 39, adding that people would not turn in their firearms so easily. “They will dig up holes and bury the weapons; they will hide them in wells and even in graveyards.”

Widespread gun ownership is largely a legacy of the wars that came after the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Around 400,000 people, about 6 percent of the population, legally own guns, excluding hunting weapons, according to the authorities. Despite having one of the highest rates of firearm ownership in the world, mass shootings — until now — were rare.

After the back-to-back killings this week — one at a school in Belgrade, the capital, and another in nearby farming villages — President Aleksandar Vucic vowed the “almost complete disarmament” of the country. On Friday he said the authorities would aim to decrease the number of legal gun owners by up to 90 percent, to about 40,000 people.

Mr. Vucic’s call for gun control resonated with residents of Malo Orasje, one of two villages where the second massacre occurred. “Nobody needs guns, there’s just too much weapons in this country,” said Branka Mitrovic, 56.

Ms. Mitrovic was leaving a cemetery where five victims of the killings in Malo Osraje had just been buried. Earlier in the day, hundreds of residents flocked to the village’s small Orthodox Christian church to pay their last respects, lining up to light candles.

For over an hour, the same moving scene repeated itself five times: The church bells rang and mourners made the sign of the cross as they watched pallbearers carry a wooden coffin into the churchyard. Then, the coffin was placed on a bench facing the church while a tearful relative remained nearby, holding a cross bearing the dates of the victim’s birth and death. All of the birth dates were from the 2000s.

“What did they take from us!” screamed a woman overwhelmed by grief.

Other funerals took place in Belgrade on Saturday for several victims of the school shooting. Thousands of people in the capital have already paid their respects in recent days, laying flowers and lighting candles that now cover much of a street leading to the school.

“We can’t believe that’s happening here,” Milana Vanovac, 56, said as she looked at the impromptu memorials on Saturday. “We thought mass shootings were a problem for other countries, not for us.”

Ms. Vanovac’s confusion spoke to Serbia’s sudden reckoning with the issue of guns. The nation ranks third in the world for gun ownership along with Montenegro, with an estimated 39 firearms per 100 people, trailing the United States with 121 and Yemen with 53, according to the 2018 Small Arms Survey, a Geneva-based research group.

The high rate of gun ownership, in part a legacy of the country’s wars, also stems from a “tough guy” culture, said Bojan Elek, the deputy director at the Belgrade Center for Security Policy.

To tackle the gun issue that experts say has long been poorly addressed, Mr. Vucic, the Serbian president, promised a full audit of gun owners’s backgrounds, including drug and psychological tests, enhanced surveillance of shooting ranges and a two-year moratorium on new licenses. He also called for a one-month amnesty for gun owners to surrender illegal weapons without penalty, ahead of more stringent measures.

But many in Serbia are skeptical the measures will work.

Mr. Elek noted that those affected would primarily be legal gun owners who were already ready to turn in their firearms. “Those who illegally own weapons won’t be affected,” he said.

In Dubona, one of the two villages where the later shootings occurred, residents also expressed doubts about the disarmament of the country — and their own willingness to participate.

“There’s no way he can implement this,” Stefan Markovic, 29, a construction worker from Dubona, said of the Serbian president’s promises. “Nobody can do anything about this.”

Mr. Markovic, who lost several friends in the shooting, said the rate of gun ownership was too high to be significantly reduced. He estimated that the bulk of Dubona residents have a gun, although few have licenses. Asked if he had a gun, he smiled approvingly.

Several weapons were found during searches of houses associated with the gunman accused of carrying out the shootings on Thursday, the police said. They included an automatic rifle that was not registered, a carbine with optics, a pistol and four hand grenades. Mr. Markovic, who lives near the suspect’s family home, said the suspect’s father, a deputy colonel in the Serbian Army, had “a whole arsenal” of weapons.

The exact number of guns in Serbia, a small country of 6.8 million people, has been difficult to determine. Mr. Elek of the Belgrade Center for Security Policy said the number had decreased over the years. But there were still approximately 2.7 million firearms in civilian hands at the end of 2017, with fewer than half registered with the government, according to the Small Arms Survey.

Like several other mourners in Malo Osraje, Ms. Marinkovic said she opposed the widespread presence of guns. “I hope that people’s mind will change after the killings,” she said. “But I’m pessimistic.”

In Dubona, residents on Friday seemed hesitant about turning in their weapons at all. Some said the gunman’s rampage had instead persuaded them to keep their guns for self-protection.

“Imagine if he had come to our house and we didn’t have a gun to protect ourselves,” said Milos Todorovic, who lives with his family down the main street of the village, where bloodstains from the shooting were still visible on Friday. “He comes to your door and kills you.”

Sitting around a garden table, strewn with pastries and small glasses of rakija, a fruit spirit popular in the Balkans, his father nodded in agreement.

Mr. Elek said the culture of gun ownership for self-protection dated back hundreds of years, when populations in the region tried to resist the Ottoman Empire. It has been further entrenched by the legacy of two world wars and the conflicts surrounding the breakup of Yugoslavia.

He added that guns were also part of longtime traditions that have disappeared in big cities but remain in the countryside, with people firing into the air to commemorate special occasions. Mr. Elek said one such tradition, during weddings, consisted of putting an apple on the top of a house and shooting it with a gun.

In Dubona, Maria Todorovic, Mr. Todorovic’s sister, acknowledged the need for changes. “Something has to be done regarding the guns,” she said. “Otherwise, where will it lead us?”

But she added that guns were so ingrained in their culture that she sometimes tended to forget how dangerous they could be.

Ms. Todorovic said she was in the family’s home garden when the gunman started shooting a few yards away. She said she was not worried at first. “When we heard the gunshots, we thought it was somebody celebrating a birthday.”

Alisa Dogramadzieva contributed reporting.

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