At the beginning of May 2023 Serbia experienced two mass murders, which – as stated in the report the Government of Serbia presented before the National Assembly – deeply disturbed the public. The first took place on 3 May at the Elementary School "Vladislav Ribnikar" in Belgrade, when a 13-year-old pupil killed ten persons (nine pupils and a security employee) and wounded 6 others (five pupils and a female teacher). The second started on the evening of 4 May in the vicinity of Mladenovac, i.e. the villages of Dubona and Malo Orašje, where a 20-year-old local killed 8 people and wounded 14.
Besides the fact that these two events happened one right after the other and that the damage and the number of victims were enormous, another thing they have in common is they were both committed using firearms. The first was committed using a gun that was in the legal possession of the father of the pupil who committed the murders, which is why both parents were arrested. The second was committed using an illegal weapon, an automatic rifle which - according to the current Law on Arms and Ammunition - cannot be registered by natural persons. During the investigation, the police found a large number of weapons and ammunition in the homes of the suspect, his family members and relatives. They confiscated them, arresting the suspect’s father, grandfather and uncle.
The President and the Government of Serbia quickly reacted following the events, announcing the introduction of a series of measures of problematic character and questionable efficiency. In his address, the President mentioned the death penalty, the introduction of which would be in contravention with the European Convention on Human Rights ratified by Serbia; however, this idea was allegedly rejected by the Prime Minister and was not discussed again. Then it was announced that the age limit for criminal responsibility of minors would be reduced from 14 to 12 years. However, as evidenced by the experiences of other countries, this measure would only increase juvenile crime and recidivism instead of preventing and deterring violence. By the same token, it is questionable whether tougher penalties for gun-related offences would actually reduce their use in acts of violence. Police officers were assigned to all the schools. The state announced the introduction of extraordinary control of weapons in the possession of citizens, additionally burdening the police organisation, as well as other forms of repression against citizens. In addition to the problems related to the announced measures, communication with the public was such that it further disturbed the citizens, revealed details from the investigation, and encouraged sensationalist reporting by certain media.
Citizens expressed their dissatisfaction with the government’s response to multiple murders, the actions and work of state authorities that preceded it and the permanent violence in the media by organising protests in the streets, first in Belgrade and later throughout the country. Protest demands are related mainly to the regulation of electronic and print media, the responsibility of officials, and the cancellation of reality shows with violent content. The protests were supported by the general public, including students and the academic community , artists , civil society organisations, attorneys and political parties. The announced set of measures is mostly of a repressive nature, does not contribute to the improvement of citizens’ security, and there is a possibility of expanding the powers and role of the police and intelligence services for the purpose of strengthening the authoritarian power of the government instead of an effective reaction to the problem. Finally, there is no evidence that these measures will actually reduce the number of firearms among the citizens and, more importantly, the consequences these firearms can lead to.
Namely, the large amount of weapons in the possession of citizens of Serbia and the surrounding countries is part of the legacy of the wars of the 1990s and the development of organised crime in the region in the last 30 years or so. The presence of both legal (registered) and illegal (unregistered) weapons is recognised as a problem in both Serbia and the region (the countries of former Yugoslavia and the Western Balkans). The consequence of this many weapons is their use in organised crime and domestic and other interpersonal violence. Although there have been some public policies that spoke of work being done to solve this problem, their effectiveness and the application of the law are questionable. This text deals precisely with the state’s reaction to the problem of weapons, the measures that have been adopted, and the communication with the public in these crisis situations.