Serbians are reeling and demanding answers after two mass shootings in less than 48 hours left multiple people dead, with widespread calls for tough action to prevent any further repeat of such tragedies.
Gun ownership is high in Serbia, but the sort of mass shootings seen on a daily basis in the United States are extremely rare in the Balkan country and school shootings were – until this week – virtually unheard of.
That all changed on Wednesday when a 13-year-old boy opened fire on his classmates at a school in the capital Belgrade, killing at least eight children and a security guard.
The nation was still in deep shock when news of another mass killing broke on Thursday night. A 21-year old gunman wielding an automatic weapon killed eight people in the village of Dubona, south of the capital city. The gunman has been arrested following a massive overnight manhunt involving hundreds of special forces.
“This never happened in Serbia before. We only heard about this [happening in] the United States. You could never dream that this would happen here,” Belgrade resident Marko Kovacevic told CNN. “This is the worst thing that happened in Serbia since the bombing in 1999,” another resident, David Stevens, told CNN at a vigil in Belgrade.
The reaction was swift. Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić promised on Friday, just hours after the second shooting, that the government will make urgent changes to the country’s firearm legislation.
He proposed tougher conditions for people who wish to purchase weapons and a national gun buyback program for those who can’t fulfill those conditions.
“Great nations managed to find solutions after big tragedies,” Vučić said during a news conference on Friday. “We have to find the way to live freely and to confront this evil,” he said.
The government is also proposing a two-year moratorium on the issuing of new gun permits and a review of existing permits within the next three months.
It is also looking to potentially ban cell phones from schools and put new regulations on social media – specifically aimed at “content that can seriously harm the physical, mental or moral development of minors.”
Nation in shock
The massacres have left many in Serbia aghast, with questions about the motives behind them high on people’s minds.
The night before the killings at the Belgrade elementary, the 13-year-old suspect was up late watching videos on TikTok and an American documentary about a school shooting, according to Belgrade police chief Veselin Milić, who declined to name the specific film.
“This murderer said that he had seen some weird American film where a boy did the same in his school. The murderer had no empathy or remorse,” he told CNN in an interview on Thursday.
The teenage suspect fired 57 rounds inside Vladislav Ribnikar Elementary, a prestigious school in an upscale part of Belgrade. The police said he was remarkably proficient in the way he handled the weapon, changing clips as he moved through the school.
He used two handguns that his father owned legally and kept in a locked safe.
Milić said that the boy’s father had previously taken him to a gun range in the basement of Belgrade’s FK Partizan football club’s stadium – even though it is illegal in Serbia for young people to handle guns.
Asked about the legality of teaching a child to use a gun, Milić said, “It’s absolutely illegal. It’s neither normal nor natural.”
Searching for answers
The school shooting on Wednesday sparked questions about criminal responsibility after it emerged that the suspect cannot be held liable.
Under Serbian law, children under 14 cannot be held criminally responsible. The suspect’s parents have been detained for possible crimes related to the boy’s access to the locked safe where they stored the gun, but they have not yet been formally charged.
“It is terrifying to see such a young person has the capacity to perform such a horrendous act,” Stevens added.
The boy is currently being held in a psychiatric facility, but his long-term future is unclear. Milić said the suspect was not under the influence of drugs at the time of the shooting, and had not been the victim of bullying, though he had recently fallen out with his friends and changed classes in an attempt to fit in.
Many are also questioning the initial reaction of the school authorities. While there was an armed police officer on the school campus that day, Belgrade police said the officer didn’t immediately run towards the sound of gunfire, but instead waited for backup, then entered the school minutes later to arrest the suspect – who had called police himself.
For comparison, in the US, where school shootings have tragically become regular occurrence in recent years, police are trained to immediately go towards the sound of gunfire and try to take out the shooter.
Belgrade police have not yet responded to CNN’s requests for clarification on its own protocols and whether they were followed in this case.
On Wednesday night in Belgrade, crowds gathered to protest against the authorities, demanding the resignation of Education Minister Branko Ružić. His deputy, Milan Pašić, told CNN his boss had offered his resignation, but it was not clear if it would be accepted. The offer was not enough for some teachers in the city, who plan to walk out on Friday over school safety concerns.
Pašić insisted that the school was as safe as it could have been. “Unfortunately, it happened in school, but it could’ve happened on the street, in the park. In any case this is just one tragic case,” he said.
For the past three days, there has been plenty of public discussion about mental health, parental responsibility, violent video games, social media and, of course, guns.
While Serbia is a country that has known violence, conflict and war, it has not had to reckon with questions around this type of mass shooting.
It has the highest level of civilian gun ownership in Europe, and the fifth-highest in the world – a legacy of years of conflict in the 1990s. But getting a gun legally is a complicated process that requires a background check, medical check and a training course. The person wanting a gun also has to prove they have a good reason to own one.
In the meantime, ordinary people are doing what they can, as victims continue to fight for their lives in hospital. A blood donation clinic close to the school in central Belgrade said it had twice as many donors as usual turn up to give blood following the shooting.
CNN’s Mark Esplin and Pierre Bairin contributed to this report.