Thursday, 18 Jul 2024

After Mass Shootings in Serbia, Few Are Ready to Give Up Their Guns

He learned how to shoot a gun from his grandfather before he started school, and he fought in three wars as a soldier in the Yugoslav and then the Serbian Army during the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s.

Sinisa Janicijevic became such a good shot that he regularly gets invited to weddings in villages around his hometown, Kraljevo, in central Serbia, to make sure the bride shows up — which, by tradition, involves shooting down an apple placed in a tree outside her family’s home.

The groom is supposed to perform this task but, anxious about missing, he often calls in a substitute shooter.

Serbia’s deep attachment to guns, and the plethora of them, have been widely cited as an explanation for back-to-back massacres last month — one at a school in Belgrade, the capital, and another in nearby farming villages — that stunned the nation, even if the rate of violence involving weapons is low. Following the killings, President Aleksandar Vucic vowed to tighten gun control laws so as to enforce “almost complete disarmament.”

The two shootings appeared to have little in common other than the youth of the culprits; The school shooting by a 13-year-old involved legally registered pistols, the other massacre, by a 21-year-old, an illegal automatic rifle.

The killings have sparked a nationwide debate over what to do about the large number of guns in the country — and over whether that is even the problem.

The picture is far more complicated than one of simple gun control. Serbia already has some of the tightest restrictions in Europe. But patchy enforcement has left a large number of weapons illegally in private hands — the guns that Mr. Vucic is mainly going after — and many Serbians, whether gangsters who use them for their work or villagers who cherish old family rifles, are unlikely to hand them over, experts say.

In a series of huge street protests in Belgrade, demonstrators have accused the government of focusing on gun control in order to avoid dealing with deeper and more intractable social ills, particularly among young people.

Ivan Ljubojevic, a 47-year-old manager who took part in a protest Saturday, scoffed at the government’s crackdown as “a diversion from our real problems.”

A day earlier, Mr. Vucic, who accuses the opposition of exploiting the mass shooting for political ends, held a smaller rally of his own supporters.

Mr. Janicijevic, the veteran, who is also a keen hunter, said he believed gun control laws were too strict, and that the real problem was a pervasive “culture of violence” aggravated by social media.

He noted that there had been no mass shootings in Serbia in the 1990s, when gun laws were relatively lax and rarely enforced, and the country was awash with weapons from the wars in neighboring Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo.

All automatic weapons are banned in Serbia, as are most semiautomatic ones. A criminal conviction for a traffic accident or other offenses makes legal gun ownership impossible. People who manage to obtain a gun permit for reasons of personal security need to apply for a separate permit if they want to take weapons out of their homes.

To obtain permits for his two hunting rifles, Mr. Janicijevic had to undergo psychiatric and medical examinations, be vetted by a state hunting association and wait for months until police officers had interviewed his neighbors about whether they had seen signs of aggressive behavior. He has to keep his guns locked in a cabinet separate from his ammunition.

Instead of tightening these already strict controls, Mr. Janicijevic said, the government should focus on controlling social media.

There is no evidence that social media or TV-watching habits contributed to either of last month’s shootings. But Serbians critical of Mr. Vucic have made much of the fact that the second shooter, according to village residents who knew him, greatly admired Kristijan Golubovic, a convicted drug dealer and thief who appeared on reality shows on Pink, a stridently pro-government channel, and as a guest on a second loyal station, Happy.

After killing eight people in a shooting spree that began outside a schoolyard, the shooter fled to Kragujevac, a city that has a large weapons factory and that residents say is full of guns.

“You would faint if you knew how many people have guns around here,” said Vlada Peric, a burly war veteran who works in Kragujevac as a bodyguard.

He blamed American influence, spread largely through social media, for turning Serbia’s folkloric attachment to guns into mass murder. Young people, he said “just want to be modern and follow modern trends,” including school shootings.

But Serbia, he added, “is not Texas.”

Among the main targets of the protesters’ anger have been television stations like Pink and Happy that, in between highly flattering coverage of Mr. Vucic, air brutally violent reality shows that sometimes feature convicted criminals like Mr. Golubovic.

Despite Serbia’s stringent restrictions on gun ownership, criminals have no trouble arming themselves, according to Predrag Petrovic, a researcher at the Belgrade Center for Security Policy.

“This is not about how strict our rules are but how they are implemented,” Mr. Petrovic said. Rules imposed with great vigor on hunters and other regular gun owners, he added, are rarely enforced for friends of the government or organized crime groups.

“The law is a one-way street: Ordinary people follow it and gangsters just ignore it,” said Aco Filipovic, a Kraljevo bar owner who said he gave up his gun because of the paperwork and the cost of getting a permit after the laws were tightened in 2015.

The government has reported that since it declared an amnesty in early May on illegal possession for gun owners who turn in their weapons, it has collected more than 50,000 guns and explosive devices, less than two percent of the estimated total number of firearms in private hands.

With billboards across the country urging citizens to “surrender weapons,” shops selling guns for hunting and personal security are struggling.

Jandrija Martic, the general manager of Royal Wolf, a registered gun seller in Kraljevo, said sales had fallen by around 95 percent since the mass shootings.

“I may have to shut my business down,” he said.

While the crackdown has chilled the legal market for new guns, many question whether it has led many people to turn in the weapons, particularly illegal ones, that they already had. An earlier collection drive in 2015 quickly fizzled.

Nebojsa Pantelic, a member of the security team that was guarding the Serbian prime minister Zoran Djindjic when he was assassinated by a sniper outside his Belgrade office in 2003, said the people in his village were unlikely to be swayed by the amnesty offer.

“Everyone here has guns but nobody is giving them up,” he said. Many of the weapons are old family heirlooms and ancient hunting rifles.

Precise figures on how many guns, both legal and illegal, there are in Serbia are hard to come by. The government releases only patchy numbers. A 2018 report by the Small Arms Survey, a Geneva-based group, put the total number of guns in civilian hands in Serbia at 2.7 million and placed the country in third place for per capita gun ownership. along with Montenegro, another former part of Yugoslavia. They were behind only the United States and Yemen, a country at war.

Aaron Karp, a senior lecturer at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va., and the principal author of the report, conceded that because of sketchy official data from Serbia, the number is “a best effort,” adding, “The method is solid but it is not a reliable number.”

Whatever the actual figure, Serbia has a relatively low murder rate, ranking alongside Sweden, though a series of gruesome murders by organized crime groups have given the country an unsavory reputation for extreme violence.

Well-documented links between the government and organized crime, including a notoriously violent group led by Veljko Belivuk, Mr. Petrovic said, have also undermined trust in Mr. Vucic’s pledges to get a grip on guns, and have added to a climate of fear that only increases the appetite for weapons. Tensions over Kosovo, which declared independence from Serbia in 2008, have stoked those feelings, he said.

“Vucic is constantly telling people we are on the brink of war with Kosovo and sending the message that his political opponents are working for foreign interests,” he said. “Serbia is run by fear.”

Andrew Higgins is the bureau chief for East and Central Europe based in Warsaw. Previously a correspondent and bureau chief in Moscow for The Times, he was on the team awarded the 2017 Pulitzer Prize in International Reporting, and led a team that won the same prize in 1999 while he was Moscow bureau chief for The Wall Street Journal. 

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