What the U.S. Can Learn About Gun Violence From Serbia

As The Onion repeatedly reminds us, most people most of the time think of the United States as the only place where school shootings and other mass shootings regularly take place. So when two such shootings happened in Serbia in one week, people in both countries understandably asked themselves: Was the United States, deep down, somehow like Serbia? Or was Serbia just now becoming like the United States?

In Serbia, this last question occasioned some soul-searching: What is happening in this society? I have been asking the same questions for the past 30 years as a sociologist researching the region. Serbia is deeply divided, traumatized by the violence of a recent past that different parts of the political culture simultaneously celebrate, condemn, and studiously ignore. It is governed by an elite that operates through informal networks, letting the public in only as much as necessary to maintain the appearance of legitimacy. Its institutions speak about security as incessantly as they foster insecurity. As trite as it may be to say that the violence that happened last week was inevitable, it would not be wrong to say that you could always sense the potential for it to happen.

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Does it make sense to point to gun violence and call Serbia a Balkan U.S.A.? The two countries definitely have some similarities, but the differences are just as stark. Consider gun ownership. Everyone knows that the United States is No. 1 in the world in firearms possession. Less remarked-on is the fact that Serbia ranks not far behind, at No. 3. But the gulf between them is pretty big: For every 100 people in the United States, there are 100 to 120 firearms, whereas in Serbia, there are nine to 39, according to data from the University of Sydney’s GunPolicy.org.

The wide range in these estimates shows just how many guns are unregistered and illegal. The long and semiautomatic arms used in last week’s killings are permitted in much of the United States but entirely illegal in Serbia. Serbia doesn’t have anything like the National Rifle Association lobbying politicians to influence gun policy. Nor is there a large constituency in Serbia for the idea that guns are emblematic of personal freedom or embody a basic right. In fact, firearms legislation is pretty restrictive. The guns are out there because the legislation is not enforced.

Because semiautomatic weapons are illegal in Serbia, the state was able to respond quickly. The authorities did make some early blunders. Education Minister Branko Ružić traced the causes of the shootings to “video games” and “so-called Western values,” and was compelled to resign within four days. Police requested that schools in Kikinda and Užice deliver lists of “problematic and asocial” children (a request the schools rightly refused). But it took only a day for President Aleksander Vučić to deliver a speech promising swift action to protect public safety and to reduce ownership of illegal firearms by 90 percent. Confiscation combined with an amnesty program for the surrender of illegal weapons allowed police to collect 3000 guns in mere days.

This early and swift response earned Serbia a lot of international praise—and drew unflattering comparisons with the United States from some observers, including Kris Brown of the Brady campaign. But Vučić’s executive action to enforce existing laws did not satisfy activists in Serbia who saw the root of the horrific events not only in the presence of weapons but also in a cultural and media environment where violence is glorified, and in a political culture where the state uses awful memories of the past, and the fears that derive from them, to justify and promote violence.

Serbia has made no serious public effort to come to terms with its deep complicity in war crimes committed in the 1990s, despite numerous criminal convictions of individuals and the International Court of Justice’s finding it liable for breaching the Genocide Convention. Instead, its political elites and tabloid media continue to promote ethnonationalist resentment and hatred, and those sentiments have been amplified by a widely shared attitude of victimhood. If we trace the origins of Serbian nationalism to Ilija Garašanin's Načertanije, an expansionist manifesto written in 1844 and published in 1906, then the idea of “Greater Serbia” is considerably older than “Make America Great Again.”.

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On Beogradska street in Belgrade, scant blocks from the Vladislav Ribnikar elementary school, where nine people were murdered on May 3, you can find a plaque honoring the memory of Dušan Jovanović, a 13-year-old Roma boy who was beaten to death by racists in 1997. But just a short walk from there, on the corner of Aleksa Nenadović Street, passersby are greeted by a large mural celebrating General Ratko Mladić, who was convicted of genocide for the murder of 8,372 civilians in Srebrenica in 1995. The mural has been there since 2021 and is assiduously protected.

The Mladić mural is an expression—and not the only one of its kind in Serbia—that goes beyond the internationally standard routinization of violence in films and propaganda. That’s because it attaches violence to an ideological purpose, and to ethnic and national hatred that is, at a minimum, tolerated by the state.

Although the constituency of the worst-inclined people is well represented in Serbia, it’s hardly the case that everyone is an ethno-nationalist fanatic inclined to violence. Parents of the victims in the school shooting led a march against violence in which they drew the appropriate connections. Their protest demanded the resignations of responsible officials and demanded a special session of Parliament in which laws promoting everyday security could be passed. They are also demanding strict limits on the promotion of violence and hatred in the media, including violent films and entertainment programs, “print media and tabloids that publish false news items,” and “television stations that mislead citizens, poison minds, and promote violence,” specifically Pink TV and Hepi TV, two broadcasters very close to the ruling elite.

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The presiding officer of the Parliament declined to meet with the victims’ parents, although later, Vučić said that he and the prime minister had met with them and “will fulfill all of their demands.“ However, Vučić’s party said that it would meet any new protest with a simultaneous counterprotest, which would be certain to inflame tensions and lead to further violence. A few days later, the president described the protesters as “hyenas and scavengers,” which probably indicates that he is not all that interested in reaching compromises or calming things down.

Why the hostility between the regime and the parents, who at first glance appear to share the same goals? Vučić acted immediately by issuing his executive action on firearms. He was rightly praised from many sides for doing something that people had been requesting for years. But Vučić was able to do this at least in part because of the authoritarian character of his rule. Opposition parties are weak, and he enjoys nearly complete control over the Parliament, the judiciary, and most other relevant decision-making and enforcement institutions. The parents’ protest highlighted the links among the authoritarian character of the state, the destructively ideological nature of the media, and the broad normalization of violence in the culture.

Confiscating a large number of illegal weapons will probably do some good, and it certainly will not do any harm. But Vučić is aware that he cannot address the root causes of violence without putting the foundations of his rule in danger: The informal network of elites that governs the country needs citizens to be confused, fearful, and insecure.

The conclusions that can be drawn from Serbia’s experience might be unwelcome ones for American gun-control advocates, who argue that the basic cause of persistent mass killings in the United States is not cultural or psychological, and stems not from the erosion of values or the evaporation of respect for authority; rather, they say, it can be traced almost entirely to the presence of large numbers of guns. A critical mass in Serbia is arguing to a receptive public that the state can get rid of guns but that eliminating the danger of violence will also require building institutions that are truthful and responsible, and building a culture that is, if not tolerant and understanding, then at least relatively nontoxic.

When we talk about these issues in Serbia, the touchstone is often the wars of the 1990s, out of which the present regime emerged, and the failure of institutions to deal seriously with its legacy. This is an enormously important issue. I wrote a book about it, and so have many other people who were determined to point, with alarm, at the danger that arises from leaving history as a field of open wounds.

But there is another touchstone, which the parents’ protest indicated with tremendous clarity. It has to do with the character of the political culture. Countries such as Serbia whose governments made the promise of security central to their power have come to depend on keeping alive the very fears they pledged to defend their citizens against. The Serbian government has further shored up its authority by shutting down opposition—emptying the public sphere of both genuine confrontation and the capacity to resolve disagreements. Violent ideologies easily gain traction in societies shaped by fear that also lack outlets for constructive dissension. Serbia’s protest against violence is dangerous for the country’s ruling elite, because its demand is to make people more secure by making the culture more democratic and inclusive.

We may be tempted to regard these points about history and culture as unique to the exotic Balkans, but as is almost always the case, they are not. So we shouldn’t be too surprised that in the aftermath of Serbia’s mass shootings, the U.S. and Serbia, with all their differences, are asking themselves what they have in common—and maybe even what Serbia’s experience can teach us about the United States.

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