BELGRADE, Serbia — Earlier in May, two Serbian mass shootings seized the news cycle. Collectively the shootings killed 17 and wounded 21. Prior to May’s attacks, Serbia’s last mass shooting occurred in 2013, an event that took 13 lives.
The first shooting, on May 3rd, took place at Vladislav Ribnikar elementary school. The gunman, a 13-year-old boy, entered the school close to 9:00 am and opened fire, killing eight students and a security guard. He also injured six additional classmates and a teacher.
The second shooting happened on May 4th. This shooter, a 20-year-old man, carried out a seemingly untargeted rampage across two rural villages, killing eight and wounding fourteen.
What Is Known About the Shooters
In both cases, the suspect was arrested. The 13-year-old student was identified and is now in a mental health clinic, given he is too young to charge criminally. However, it’s been revealed that the student had hatched plans at least one month before the shooting took place. Police found sketches of the school outlining a plan of attack, including details about where he would enter and a list of students to target. In addition, law enforcement discovered that the student had stolen two of his father’s firearms, one of which was a handgun. The teenager also possessed four Molotov cocktails.
The father of the elementary school shooter was also arrested. In questioning, the father claimed his guns were locked in a safe, according to national regulations. However, he revealed that his son likely stole the code and broke in to obtain the weapons.
The second shooter, also in custody, was reportedly in an altercation at a school ground shortly before he went on a killing spree. After being apprehended, officers discovered that following the altercation, he went home to retrieve two guns — one handgun and one assault rifle. The reason behind the attack isn’t yet known, but reports indicate it was in part related to right-wing nationalism, given the shooter wore a shirt bearing Nazi symbolism. The suspect fled after driving through two rural villages and firing upon unsuspecting Serbian citizens. Serbian officials deployed over 600 officers to find the suspect, apprehending him the following morning.
Serbia’s Long, Violent History — Are the Guns to Blame?
Immediately following the shootings, Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić spoke out, condemning the violence as a practical and solvable issue, vowing to “Disarm” the country. He stated that the Serbian government would institute firearm buybacks, including a period of amnesty for all illegal guns to be repurchased without risk of criminal charges. He also pledged to create harsher gun ownership restrictions and proposed lowering the age of criminal responsibility from 14 to 12.
Alongside leaders, tens of thousands of Serbian citizens rallied after the shootings to demand resignations from certain party officials, urging current leadership to follow through on disarmament promises. But although it appeared that the Serbian President and the protestors had similar wishes concerning the outcome, opposition party protesters blamed Vučić and his administration, explaining that he was responsible for dividing Serbia via state-controlled media, causing duress that encouraged behavior that could lead to mass shootings.
Alongside their political demands, protestors have pushed to revoke the licenses of two major Serbian national TV broadcasters on the grounds of their continued glorification of guns and crime.
Since the protests began in early May, over 23,000 firearms and over 1,000,000 rounds of ammunition were bought back — stark evidence of the oversaturation of weapons in the Balkans.
Firearm ownership has been a longstanding concern in Eastern Europe. While mass shootings are rare, the Balkan nation has one of the highest rates of gun ownership in the world.
- United States – 120.5
- Falkland Islands – 62.1
- Yemen – 52.8
- New Caledonia – 42.5
- Serbia – 39.1 (tie)
- Montenegro – 39.1 (tie)
- Uruguay – 34.7 (tie)
- Canada – 34.7 (tie)
- Cyprus – 34
- Finland – 32.4
(Gun ownership per 100 citizens, as per the World Population Review)
Around 39% of Serbian civilians own guns, a statistic that links back to the country’s struggle for independence in the 1990s during its breakup with Yugoslavia.
In the early 90s, a rise of Serbian nationalism spurred rebel militias to undergo rapid armament. During this period of prolonged warfare, Serbian firearm ownership and organized crime skyrocketed, creating a flourishing black market for firearms and upticks in gun-related violence. But Serbia’s gun-addled history isn’t the only thing receiving blame for the mass shootings.
On top of high rates of gun ownership, certain Serbian leveraged pointed the finger at the spread of Westernization as another root cause of mass shootings. Serbia’s Education Minister, Branko Ruzic, now resigned, tied the elementary school shooting to “the cancerous, pernicious influence of the internet, video games, so-called Western values.”
A Moment for Self-Reflection in the United States
America is rarely required to compare its own flaws to those of other countries, especially smaller nations that stand at the fringes of geopolitical influence, like Serbia. But given America’s unique failure among developed nations to halt the scourge of gun violence, the Serbian massacres present a forced comparison, especially considering how quickly Serbian leadership and citizens acted in demanding changes.
At this point, it’s well documented that the debate in the United States has calloused into outright denial in addressing the leading cause of death of the country’s children and adolescents, even with case studies of other Western nations that have dealt with the issue of gun violence.
The most potent example often trotted out by gun-control advocates is Australia’s reaction to the Port Arthur shooting, an attack that led to quick and colossal gun reform, even under a conservative majority.
In 1997, just after Port Arthur, which left 35 dead, Australia’s per capita gun ownership rate was 6.52 firearms for every 100 citizens.
After Port Arthur, bipartisan legislation led to massive gun reform laws, including buybacks, indicating that such measures were a matter of public health. Over two decades later, ownership rates fell to 3.41. Under the new framework of the National Firearms Agreement, Australia didn’t see another mass shooting for over 20 years. Over 640,000 firearms were repurchased, and firearm death decreased by 5% annually.
Should the United States Follow in Serbia’s Footsteps?
The swift reaction from Serbian citizens and officials clearly juxtaposes how countries other than the United States can handle mass shootings. Serbia, a parliamentary Republic, albeit one that comes with many asterisks, has seen incredible pushes for changes after the two attacks in early May. Comparatively, in 2023, the United States experienced 184 mass shootings and over 13,000 firearms deaths and remained in legislative gridlock.
Every fresh elementary school bullet hole makes one clear: the United States is desperate for reform but is unallowed by organizations profiting from absurd gun ownership rates and policymakers who build careers from inside their pockets. At this point in our National history, the gun lobby holds more control over legislative action than at any point since its founding. As a result, gun laws continue slackening. But, desperate for reformation though we are, does the United States require the swift, decisive action currently unfolding in Serbia?
As always, lurking in the crevices of the gun reform debate is the balance between a less violent society and autocratic overreach. In the case of Serbia, there’s good reason for skepticism, as ever since their breakaway from former Yugoslavia, the country has primarily found itself under the thumb of autocrats like Slobodan Milosevic. And now, Serbia’s current President, Aleksandar Vučić, having served under the Milosevic administration as Minister of Information, plays from the same authoritarian handbook.
Since Vučić’s ascendance to the Presidency in 2017, Serbian citizens have protested his anti-democratic trappings as he continues undermining trust in independent journalism, eroding electoral conduct, and fueling division. However, as the country reels after these mass shootings, Vučić is using the crisis as a performance and is vowing to disarm the nation, even as the opposition blames him as a cause for the conditions that made mass shootings likelier. Many find his anti-gun campaign as an appeal to populism as he seeks to boost his image for the next election cycle.
In the case of the United States, the roles would seemingly be reversed, as the global community assumes the US to be a country with citizens who refuse to surrender their guns, regardless of cost; remember Bill O’Reiley’s notorious statement after the Las Vegas mass shooting, calling the tragedy “the price of freedom.” But at this point, to assume that to be pro-gun is the populist’s stance is an assumption that can no longer hold up.
After the Biden Administration passed minor gun reform in 2022 (though minor, it was the first of its kind in almost 30 years), 63% of Americans wished to see Congress take more action concerning gun control. So, it’s far more evident that, when processing the American inaction toward gun violence, the financial incentive from gun lobbyists takes the driver’s seat over any populist sentiment.
It’s entirely in step with reality to conclude that while fears of authoritarianism are valid concerning Serbian disarmament, American politicians who oppose gun reform act largely with a shareholder’s greed toward the gun violence problem regardless of the bloody, expanding toll.
May 23rd marked the first anniversary of the Uvalde Elementary Schooting.