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“Shock & Surprise”: Serbia Reels from Two Mass Shootings, Demands Stronger Gun Control

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We speak with Serbian journalist Ljiljana Smajlović as Serbia reels from a pair of mass shootings that left 17 people dead, incidents that spurred mass protests and demands for stronger gun control. In light of the massacres, Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić vowed to completely disarm the country. More than 6,000 unregistered guns and weapons were turned in after the government announced a month-long amnesty on illegal weapons. “People are stunned. Their sense of security has been taken away completely,” says Smajlović. She notes the shock of the mass shootings is providing a rare opening for the opposition to attempt to weaken the ruling party, which has been in power for more than a decade.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report.

We end today’s show in Serbia, which is reeling from a pair of mass shootings that left 17 people dead. On May 3rd, a 13-year-old boy, a student, went on a rampage at a school in the capital Belgrade, killing eight students and a school guard. It was Serbia’s first mass school shooting. The following day, a 21-year-old Serbian man shot dead eight people nearby.

The shootings shocked the country and led to quick calls for sweeping gun control measures, and Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vučić vowed to completely disarm the country. More than 6,000 unregistered guns and weapons have already been turned in, after the government announced a month-long amnesty on illegal weapons. Nearly 300,000 rounds of ammunition have also been surrendered.

We go now to the Serbian journalist Ljiljana Smajlović. She is former editor of Politika, the oldest daily newspaper in the Balkans, also is a columnist for a Belgrade political weekly magazine.

We welcome you back to Democracy Now!, Ljiljana. Thank you so much for being with us. Can you first lay out what happened, and then the country’s response, the population? In fact, there’s about to be yet another anti-gun mass mobilization in Belgrade today.

LJILJANA SMAJLOVIĆ: First time, you know, their sense of security has been taken away completely. So, what they’re thinking now is, “Is my child safe at school?” This other mass murder happened in a sleepy little suburb of Belgrade. They’re wondering, “Can we still meet up, play with neighbors and walk home afterwards?” So, there is this shock and surprise, and something that’s never happened before.

AMY GOODMAN: Last week, after 17 people were killed in the two mass shootings, including eight children, tens of thousands of people joined protests against gun violence in Belgrade, demanding top government officials resign. This is a protester.

SLOBODAN SEKULIĆ: [translated] It is tragic that so many kids killed by their peers were buried in a short period of time. This is a low point. We are already used to what happens in Texas, but there, weapons are openly purchased. And here, where do they get the firearms? It is a disaster.

AMY GOODMAN: This is the Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić speaking last week at a news conference in Belgrade after both mass shootings.

PRESIDENT ALEKSANDAR VUČIĆ: [translated] Everyone who has a weapon, and that’s around 400,000 individuals — and I’m not talking about hunting weapons — will have to go through revision. And after, there won’t be more 30,000 to 40,000 of them. We’ll practically conduct a complete disarmament of Serbia. For owning an illegal weapon, penalties will be much more severe, almost double. …

Of course, even that will not be enough for the small number of weapons that will remain. For hunters, who are usually more disciplined, and for everyone else, we will conduct biannual and annual exams of gun owners, including medical, psychiatric and psychological evaluations. If deemed necessary by the authorities, a substance-use test will be conducted within 48 hours.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s see if we have Ljiljana Smajlović back. And if we do, it seems like Serbia is mobilizing against gun violence much faster than the United States. You’ve had two mass shootings. We have, on average, at least one a day in the United States. Explain what’s happening.

LJILJANA SMAJLOVIĆ: What’s happening is that we have a political hegemon in power. He has been in power for over 10 years. He has a majority in parliament. He is a hands-on president. He’s also the president of the ruling party. So, when he promises something, when he says he’s going to move on something, he moves on it, and people know that he can deliver.

So, the protests, the mass opposition protests that we’ve had a couple of days ago — and we’re expecting another major protest tonight — these protests are not so much against his measures. People, by and large, approve the measures that the president has announced. People are surrendering their weapons en masse. He just announced today that 9,000 weapons were surrendered, which is more than had happened in four previous campaigns of this sort, where people were asked to turn in their unregistered weapons, and there will be no consequences if they do.

But the protests are really the protests against this long-serving president who is being accused of being a dictator. And he truly, politically, is omnipotent. So, the opposition sees this crisis of people’s sense of security as a good opportunity to try to dislodge or destabilize the government and exhort some important political concessions. They want several key people in the government, that are known as personal choices of the president, to be fired. They want two of the most popular political stations to lose their broadcasting licenses, at least for national frequencies, and only to remain cable companies. So they have huge demands, and they figure that this is a good moment to try to win some concessions from a very strong and stable — otherwise stable, government.

AMY GOODMAN: You are, to say the least, a global observer. You’ve seen what’s happened in the United States, and then you see what’s happening in Serbia. How are the mass shootings in the United States perceived from there? And this immediate crackdown on guns, especially illegal guns, on the streets of Serbia, like we haven’t seen in the United States ever?

LJILJANA SMAJLOVIĆ: We are a society that’s just as deeply polarized politically as the United States. So, we used to look at the United States and say, “Oh, that happens there because they have all those weapons, and they have these, you know, open carry and all this.” But we also felt that we were better and that this kind of thing could not happen here. And immediately, there were political accusations. A government minister, who was forced to resign, said, “This is what comes from your so-called Western baggage.” Well, the opposition responded, “No, this is what comes from Putinism, from being pro-Russian.” So that was the debate.

But, by and large, people approve of restrictive measures, and they cannot understand that the United States is unable to do anything about their problem. So, people are saying, “OK, this has not been imported from the United States. We are simply part of the big world, and these are things that happen in that outer world. And some things that are happening in the society have a lot to do with what’s happening in other more developed societies.”

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Ljiljana Smajlović, we’re going to have to leave it there. We thank you so much for being with us, Serbian journalist, joining us from Belgrade, Serbia, where two mass shootings took place one day after another, one perpetrated by a 13-year-old student who gunned down his classmates and a guard in the school.

That does it for our show. A very happy birthday to Erin Dooley! Democracy Now! is produced with Mike Burke, Renée Feltz, Deena Guzder, Messiah Rhodes, Nermeen Shaikh, María Taracena, Tami Woronoff, Charina Nadura, Sam Alcoff, Tey-Marie Astudillo, John Hamilton, Robby Karran, Hany Massoud, Sonyi Lopez. Our executive director is Julie Crosby; our director, Becca Staley.

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