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Will Serbia clamp down on gun ownership?

May 6, 2023

Two deadly mass shootings have left Serbia reeling. Will Serbian authorities crack down on legal and illegal gun ownership in the country?

Serbian police respond to a Belgrade school shooting on May 3
Serbian police respond to a Belgrade school shooting on May 3Image: Darko Vojinovic/AP/picture-alliance

After Serbia witnessed two deadly mass shootings in just two days, discussions about restricting gun ownership are heating up. And with good reason. According to 2018 estimates by Swiss research project Small Arms Survey, Serbia ranks third in the world in terms of civilian gun ownership per capita, after Yemen and the US. According to the Swiss study, in Serbia there are 39.1 light weapons per hundred persons.

"According to other estimates, at least as many weapons are also in illegal possession," Predrag Petrovic, research director at the Belgrade Center for Security Policy (BCBP), tells DW. "According to official Serbian police data from 2021, there were 920,000 weapons in Serbia at the time — although between 50,000 and 60,000 have since been returned."

Gun culture

Whatever the estimates say, it is believed that many Serbian households possess guns. Security expert Petrovic says the reason for this "gun culture" primarily stems from the numerous wars that were fought on the territory of the former Yugoslavia since 1991.

"Some of the weapons from the 1990s were never returned because citizens of the post-Yugoslavian states still do not feel safe today," Petrovic says. "In addition, in the Western Balkans, weapons have traditionally been symbols of power and status; showing one is able to protect oneself and one's family."

A pile of pistols
In 2021, Serbian police estimated there were almost one million privately owned guns in the countryImage: Getty Images/AFP/C. Bouroncle

"People here do not associate safety with government institutions, like the police doing their jobs well, but with having good neighbors and being able to protect themselves," he explains.

Tighter checks announced

Serbia has now announced it will drastically reduce the number of guns in the country. "All people who own weapons — I'm not talking about the roughly 400,000 people with hunting weapons — will be subject to an audit, and then no more than 30,000 to 40,000 guns will be left," Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said after the recent shootings. "We will almost completely disarm Serbia."

The Serbian government also announced that over the next six months, checks will be conducted to ensure gun owners are storing their arms safely and keeping weapons and ammunition in a place inaccessible to minors and other unauthorized persons.

Serbian President Vucic speaks to the press
Serbian President Vucic addresses the media after the May 3 shooting Image: Darko Vojinovic/AP/picture alliance

The procedure for issuing new firearms licenses will be tightened as well. Serbia's Interior Ministry will impose a two-year moratorium on new permits. "We know this will not happen without causing friction — but the fewer rifles there are, the less danger there is for our children and citizens," Vucic said at a press conference after the shooting.

Time for an outright ban?

While tighter controls are appropriate in light of the situation, an outright gun ban makes no sense, argues Dejan Milutinovic of the Professional Association of the Security Sector. "We already have overly strict rules," says Milutinovic. "Weapons are permanently confiscated if there is even the slightest neighborhood dispute. But it is not possible to know in advance whether someone will actually use their weapon."

Private gun ownership rules were last tightened in 2015, says security expert Petrovic. At the time, re-registering weapons became mandatory. Gun owners had to pass tests and justify why they want to keep their guns. But while these rules sound strict on paper, this has not been borne out in practice, and the deadline for registering guns was postponed several times — most recently in 2022 by another two years.

Flowers are seen near the scene of the school shooting, commemorating the victims
Mourners placed flowers near the scene of the school shooting, commemorating the victimsImage: Antonio Bronic/REUTERS

"The responsibility [to better regulate gun ownership] does not lie with Serbian citizens, but state institutions," says Petrovic. These have, however, been quite inconsistent in their approach. "While some weapons were confiscated because the police thought their owners had no reason to keep them, in other cases, gun owners were issued new gun licenses even though they had not given any reasons for owning them," Petrovic says.

Illegal weapons

Registered weapons are one problem. The other are large numbers of unregistered, illegal weapons in Serbia dating back to the wars of the 1990s. "Back then, weapons were distributed en masse to the population, but no one can trace their whereabouts," says Petrovic. The only major effort made to take back some of these guns occurred after the assassination of Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic. At the time, around 50,000 weapons were either confiscated or returned.

Long-time opposition politician Zoran Djindjic looks into the camera
Long-time opposition politician Zoran Djindjic was assassinated in 2003Image: picture-alliance/dpa

"What is needed now is a determined campaign to convince citizens they can trust the institutions of the Serbian state to guarantee security — and that they therefore no longer need weapons," says Petrovic.

Dejan Milutinovic of the Professional Association of the Security Sector, meanwhile, believes that most illegal weapons are owned by criminals. He says guns like the automatic rifle used in the shooting on May 4 near the small town of Mladenovac are not ordinarily available for purchase. 

"Automatic weapons are only found in military and police barracks. They end up elsewhere either through the negligent actions of soldiers or police officers, or through illegal arms trafficking," says Milutinovic.

Serbians who own illegal weapons now have one month to turn in their guns without facing consequences. President Vucic has threatened those holding on to their weapons, saying "we will find them — and the consequences will be terrible."

This article was translated from German.