Back-to-back shootings in Serbia this week, one in a school, have stunned the population and brought global attention to gun control in a country with one of the world’s highest rates of gun ownership.
Promising an “almost complete disarmament,” Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said Friday that he planned to introduce sweeping changes to tighten gun regulations in response to the two shootings, one by a minor and the other with an illegal firearm.
He also called for a one-month amnesty for gun owners to surrender illegal weapons without penalty before the more stringent measures.
Here is a look at Serbia’s trouble with guns and the restrictions the government proposed this week.
Why are there so many guns in Serbia?
Serbia is awash in weapons, many of them left over from the Balkan wars of the 1990s.
It now ranks third in the world for gun ownership, 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.
Almost 95% of gun owners in Serbia today are men, often middle-aged and older, according to an October report by the Flemish Peace Institute, an independent research group. The most frequent reasons for gun ownership “were not linked to tradition and customs,” but for self-protection and hunting, the report said. The researchers found that most Serbs believed that the most effective ways to protect against gun violence were a greater police presence, “violence awareness campaigns, and stricter gun-control regulations.”
The exact number of guns in Serbia has been difficult to ascertain. According to the Small Arms Survey, there were approximately 2.7 million firearms in civilian hands at the end of 2017, but fewer than half were registered with the government.
Gun amnesty programs in Serbia have worked before. In 2015, the government allowed gun owners to surrender illegal weapons without facing consequences. At least 171,087 firearms have been voluntarily surrendered since 2012, the South Eastern and Eastern Europe Clearinghouse for the Control of Small Arms and Light Weapons reported.
What are Serbia’s gun laws?
Under current law, Serbs looking to buy a gun must be older than 18 and have a justifiable reason for acquiring the weapon. They also have to take a training course and undergo extensive background checks, including a medical exam and interviews with neighbors and relatives. Home inspections are administered by police, who must confirm the owner will properly store the weapon.
Any proven history of crime, mental disorders, or substance abuse could also disqualify an applicant. Permits to carry firearms are even more difficult to obtain.
What is the government proposing in response to the shootings?
In his remarks Friday, Vucic promised to introduce stricter gun laws, more severe fines for illegal arms, and a stronger police presence in schools.
Over the next six months, he said, Serbia would add 1,200 police officers, while about 1,000 officers would be dispatched to schools across the country to help “reduce peer violence” in classrooms.
The new measures would mandate a full audit for gun owners that would include drug and psychological tests and impose more stringent conditions for possessing hunting weapons.
Under the proposed amnesty, Serbs who failed to turn in illegal weapons within the one-month grace period would face toughened penalties, like longer prison sentences. “If they do not hand them over, we will find them, and the consequences will be dire for them,” Vucic said.
The new proposal follows actions the government took Thursday to heighten surveillance of shooting ranges and impose a two-year moratorium on new licenses.
Serbia’s Interior Ministry on Thursday also urged gun owners to store their guns unloaded and locked in a cabinet and separated from the ammunition. Any firearms that were not stored properly would be seized, the ministry warned, promising a close review of the country’s registry for gun owners.
Have mass shootings led to stricter gun laws?
Mass shootings around the world have prompted governments to enact stricter gun laws. And, in many cases, they appear to have helped drive down gun violence.
The British government banned semi-automatic weapons in 1987 after a gunman killed 16 people. Handguns were banned nearly a decade later, after a school shooting in 1996. The changes took some time to have an effect. But after peaking in 2003 and 2004, the number of firearm offenses had fallen by 53% by 2011, the government reported.
A massacre in Australia in 1996 prompted a gun buyback program that removed more than 20% of firearms from circulation. It also “caused reductions in firearm suicides, mass shootings, and female homicide victimization,” a Rand study concluded.
The Canadian government imposed stricter gun measures following a mass shooting in 1989, as did German authorities in 2002, the New Zealand government in 2019, and Norway’s leaders last year.
A prominent exception is the United States, where the right to bear arms is written into the Constitution. Despite years of deadly rampages, gun control measures are often fiercely resisted.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.