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‘We Can’t Believe That’s Happening Here’: Serbia Reflects After Shootings

Serbia on Saturday mourned the loss of 17 people in two mass shooting in two days, as the nation grappled with its own culture of guns.

The funerals of several victims took place on Saturday, the second of three official days of mourning for the consecutive killings at a school in Belgrade, the Serbian capital, and in nearby farming villages.

Thousands of Belgrade residents have already paid their respects to the victims of the first shooting on Wednesday, laying flowers and lighting candles that now cover much of a street leading to the school, where a 13-year-old killed eight classmates and a security guard and wounded seven others. A day later, another gunman raced through villages in a car with an assault rifle, killing eight people and wounding at least 14 others.

“We can’t believe that’s happening here,” Milana Vanovac, 56, said as she looked at the impromptu memorials on Saturday. “We thought mass shootings were a problem for other countries, not for us.”

Serbia is grappling with a gun issue that has long been poorly addressed, experts say. The nation ranks third in the world for gun ownership along with Montenegro, 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, a Geneva-based research group.

Promising to directly address the issue, President Aleksandar Vucic vowed sweeping changes to Serbia’s gun laws on Friday, saying he was aiming for the “almost complete disarmament” of the country. Mr. Vucic said the authorities would aim to decrease the number of people who legally own guns, excluding hunting weapons, to up to 40,000 from around 400,000.

It was an ambitious promise, but one that might be difficult to fulfill in a country with a tradition of owning guns and with vast quantities of illegal weapons that are difficult to track.

The high rate of gun ownership is largely a legacy of the wars that came after the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, as well as a “tough guy” culture, said Bojan Elek, the deputy director at the Belgrade Center for Security Policy. In Serbia, especially in the countryside, he said, guns are used to celebrate weddings and birthdays and are considered a means of self-protection.

“We’re very skeptical about these newly announced measures,” Mr. Elek said, noting that those affected would primarily be legal gun owners who were already ready to turn in their firearms. “Those who illegally own weapons won’t be affected.”

In Dubona, one of two farming villages south of Belgrade where shootings occurred, residents expressed doubts about the possible disarmament of the country — and their own willingness to participate.

“There’s no way he can implement this,” Stefan Markovic, 29, a construction worker from Dubona, said of the Serbian president’s promises. “Nobody can do anything about this.”

Mr. Markovic, who lost several friends in the shooting, said the rate of gun ownership was too high to be significantly reduced. He estimated that the bulk of Dubona residents have a gun, although few have licenses. Asked if he had a gun, he smiled approvingly.

Several weapons were found during searches of houses associated with the gunman accused of carrying out the shootings on Thursday, the police said. They included an automatic rifle that was not registered, a carbine with optics, a pistol and four hand grenades. Mr. Markovic, who lives near the suspect’s family home, said the suspect’s father, a deputy colonel in the Serbian Army, had “a whole arsenal” of weapons.

The exact number of guns in Serbia, a small country of 6.8 million people, has been difficult to determine. Mr. Elek of the Belgrade Center for Security Policy said the number had decreased over the years. But there were still approximately 2.7 million firearms in civilian hands at the end of 2017, with fewer than half that were registered with the government, according to the Small Arms Survey.

Mr. Vucic, the president, promised a full audit for gun owners that would include drug and psychological tests, enhanced surveillance of shooting ranges and a two-year moratorium on new licenses. He also called for a one-month amnesty for gun owners to surrender illegal weapons without penalty, ahead of more stringent measures.

In Dubona, residents seemed hesitant about turning in their weapons at all. Some said the gunman’s rampage had instead persuaded them to keep their guns for self-protection.

“Imagine if he had come to our house and we didn’t have a gun to protect ourselves,” said Milos Todorovic, who lives with his family down the main street of the village, where bloodstains from the shooting were still visible on Friday. “He comes to your door and kills you.”

Sitting around a garden table, strewn with pastries and small glasses of rakija, a fruit spirit popular in the Balkans, his father nodded in agreement.

Mr. Elek said the culture of gun ownership for self-protection dated hundreds of years, when populations in the region tried to resist the Ottoman Empire. It has been further entrenched by the legacy of two world wars and the conflicts surrounding the breakup of Yugoslavia.

He added that guns were also part of longtime traditions that have disappeared in big cities but remain in the countryside, with people firing into the air to commemorate special occasions. Mr. Elek said one such tradition, during weddings, consisted of putting an apple on the top of a house and shooting it with a gun.

In Dubona, Maria Todorovic, Mr. Todorovic’s sister, acknowledged the need for changes. “Something has to be done regarding the guns,” she said. “Otherwise, where will it lead us?”

But she added that guns were so ingrained in their culture that she sometimes tended to forget how dangerous they could be.

Ms. Todorovic said she was in the family’s home garden when the gunman started shooting a few yards away. She said she was not worried at first. “When we heard the gunshots, we thought it was somebody celebrating a birthday.”

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