Project: Citizens on Watch: Public Participation and Localization of the Security Sector Reform

Firearms Around Us – Large number of illegal weapons in citizens' possession



"I was in a situation to hear that a parent supports their son to carry both cold weapon and firearms at school."

"I think that in our community it is very common that a husband has a pistol and that a woman does not report domestic violence just because she knows that he has this gun and that he can use it."1

At the beginning of February 2018, a meeting of representatives of the Southeastern European governments was held in Podgorica, where the strengthening of control of small arms and light weapons (SALW) in the region was discussed. This security issue has come to the attention of the (European) public, since, according to claims published in foreign media, firearms from the Balkans were used in terrorist attacks in the countries of the European Union. The same issue was also found on the agenda of the Western Balkans Summit in Trieste. During this summit, which is part of a wider Berlin process, the participating countries agreed to strengthen the physical protection of stockpiles of firearms and encourage the voluntary surrender of pistols, revolvers, rifles, slot machines, light machine guns and other weapons, thus contributing to the prevention of illicit trafficking in firearms. At the next summit of the Berlin Process, scheduled for July this year in London, the Roadmap for the Control of Small Arms and Light Weapons in the Western Balkans, agreed in Podgorica, will be presented.

Representatives of Serbia expressed willingness to participate in this process at the Podgorica meeting. In parallel with the development of the aforementioned Map, the process of drafting and adopting a new national strategy for the SALW control for the period 2018-2022 and its accompanying action plan is scheduled, whose adoption (initially) was planned for 2016. It is expected that the new strategic framework fill in the gaps that had previously been foreseen, such as developing a communication strategy to inform the public about the negative consequences of weapons misuse, educating citizens, effectively planning and implementing long-term and regular arms control operations with a view to collecting it, and the destruction, and involvement of civil society in consultation and support in achieving strategic goals. Also, it is expected that, on the initiative of civil society organizations (CSOs), the strategy will also introduce a gender dimension; in other words, the strategy will determine the impact of firearms on gender-based violence.

How many firearms are widespread in Serbia?

According to the Ministry of Interior (MoI), 973,790 pieces of firearms are registered in Serbia, while it is estimated that at least 220,000, and at most 900,000 pieces of illegal weapons are in circulation. The MoI reports that large quantities of firearms, ammunition, explosives and explosive devices are owned by citizens. This is evidenced by the number of filed criminal charges for the illicit production, possession, carrying and trafficking of weapons, which in the last five years amounted to about 7,800 charges. A lot of this kind of weapons is in the hands of the youth. The National Strategy for Youth for the period 2015-2025, referring to the MoI data, points to the widespread possession and unauthorized production, possession and carrying of firearms and trafficking thereof among the population aged 15 to 30 years of age. Data that the Public Policy Research Centre (PRPC) collected through focus groups in several cities of Serbia, support these conclusions. For example, one of the participants in Kragujevac stated: "I heard that a raid was conducted three or four months ago and that the police were amazed at how many weapons were found among young people in several clubs."

The proliferation of firearms can be seen from the perspective of a patriarchal society, such as the Serbian one, in which men possessing weapons confirm their masculinity, in particular, to avoid classifying them as categories that are inferior in cultural and social milieu.2 Understanding that "to be a man" in our context means "having a weapon" was formed by a long-standing accumulation of practices and narratives about tradition, war and violence, promoted through mass media as well as through personal stories. According to the participants of the focus group, such a situation in Novi Pazar can be observed: "I had a friend who brought the gun to school. We sit this way and he takes out a gun and puts it on the table. It's a trend here that you have a weapon. Because you're not a man if you do not have a knife, a gun ... "

While the culture of weapons and masculinity appears as the most common motive for possessing weapons, the other often cited reason is personal security. For instance, one analysis showed that 46% of surveyed citizens have a positive attitude towards weapons because they consider it to be the best form of self-defense. In other words, a large number of citizens believe that in the event of an assault on a property or on members of the household, they would not get the timely protection of competent institutions and that they are forced to acquire firearms. Contrary to such responses, young people, especially young women and members of national and sexual minorities, see the possession of weapons as a source of insecurity. "Somebody just gets afraid when sees weapons. Sometimes you do not even have to move a gun, its mere presence is enough of pressure for someone," said a Roma woman from Novi Bečej, who participated in the PRPC research on the correlation between firearms and domestic violence.

What do we know about the consequences of the firearms (mis)use?

Data collected by authorities in Serbia are not often available to the general public, so researchers rely on media reports to draw certain conclusions. Thus, for the purpose of a project of the South Eastern and Eastern Europe Clearinghouse for the Control of Small Arms and Light Weapons (UNDP-SEESAC), the PPRC was commissioned to analyze data on the weapons use by collecting citizens' posts on the "Targeting Weapons" platform and articles of printed media about armed incidents.3

The research indicated that guns and revolvers are used mostly in armed incidents, especially those in illegal possession. Contrary to the belief that most of these incidents occur in criminal circles, researchers have pointed out that weapons are often used in family debates or in conflicts with close friends and neighbors. In 72% of cases, victims and perpetrators were family members, friends, neighbors or acquaintances. While street victims often come up with lighter and more severe injuries, the outcome of armed violence in the family is most often death. Half of the victims of all armed incidents analyzed were aged 18-35. Men were perpetrators 32 times more often than women, while women were five times more likely to be victims than men. The Women's Network Against Violence Reports, also based on the analysis of media reporting, found that on average, every third woman victim of gender-based violence was killed with firearms, both legal and illegal.

The MoI is conducting two types of campaigns aimed at reducing the number of firearms - campaigns for the voluntary surrender and legalization of firearms and actions that are part of a wider fight against organized crime and illegal drug trafficking.

Regarding the former, they allow illegal weapons holders to voluntary surrender unregistered firearms and ammunition without proving their origin and without criminal and misdemeanor charges within a time limit given by the Minister of Interior. Since 1992, the MoI has conducted eight campaigns for voluntary surrender and legalizing firearms in which over 100,000 weapons and 2.5 million ammunition pieces were delivered by citizens. Most of the pieces were collected during 2003 during the "Saber" campaign when a state emergency was declared in the country (it was declared after the assassination of PM Zoran Djindjic).

In actions to combat organized crime and illegal drug trafficking in 2017, the police seized over a thousand pieces of weapons and about 20,000 ammunition. The largest number of seized items were pistols and rifles, and most of them were confiscated in the territory of Belgrade, Pirot, and Kraljevo.

In addition to MoI's actions, there are campaigns aimed at raising awareness of fatal consequences that firearms can have in cases of gender-based violence ("Before it is too late" during 16 days of activism in 2016) and / or during celebrations ("Don't allow your weapon to participate in the celebration," 2011; and "Celebrate with your heart, not with weapons," 2015).

What can be done in the upcoming period?

The media regularly convey MoI's information on the beginning and results of the campaigns for the firearms surrender and legalization. However, although they potentially represent a huge resource for raising awareness about the problem of firearms abuse, the media often report on armed incidents in an unprofessional manner.

Reporting is sensational, with no depth analysis of the causes and consequences of violence, and too many graphic displays of violence. In cases of gender-based violence, the media actively contribute to victim re-victimization. Journalists mostly do not deal with the question of the firearms origin and many risks that are embedded in its possession.4 Changing the approach to conducting media campaigns would involve fostering public discussion and broadcast educational programs on the consequences of irresponsible use of weapons. Also, instead of occasional MoI press releases, a continuous media campaign should be designed. Such a media campaign would be adapted to different social groups and would involve a wider circle of interlocutors.

The results of the last year's research of the PPRC show that citizens would respond more to legalization campaigns if they had more information about their duration and character. This research suggests that campaigns should be adjusted to local circumstances and run with the help of local media. Thus, the campaigns would focus on specific problems and security threats of the local communities and would motivate the citizens to see these actions as a contribution to their own security. Consequently, the campaigns would also make them surrender or legalize their firearms. Local campaigns may involve local authorities and local CSOs by organizing educational debates and through volunteer work which would promote the legalization of weapons during mass events. Posters with information on the legalization actions can be placed in local health centers or police stations. Companies could support such actions as part of their corporate social responsibility agenda.

Drafting the Roadmap for the Control of Small Arms and Light Weapons in the Western Balkans should primarily contribute to creating a stronger institutional response to the smuggling flows and the activities of criminal groups involved in these processes. It can be a good addition to current policies aimed at combating the trafficking of illegal weapons. Moreover, if this issue were to be placed in the focus of countries in the region, this could contribute to the renewal of the debate on the heritage of tradition and wars, the widespread proliferation of illegal weapons and the risks to human security. Withdrawing a large number of illegal weapons and destroying it would make weapons less accessible and contribute to reducing the number of crimes in the streets and in households in Serbia. Just as in the case of all other policies that are being implemented in the course of the European Union accession, these measures can only be given more serious results if there is an essential intention of the states to deal with the issue of firearms in a more comprehensive way, taking into account all aspects of this problem. Such an approach would, as the PPRC research suggests, have to lead to re-examining national policies, and to involving the widest circle of citizens in actions to legalize and hand over weapons at the local level.


  1. Marina Tadić, Posedovanje vatrenog oružja i ljudska bezbednost : Da li nas oružje štiti ili plaši?, Centar za istraživanje javnih politika, Beograd, novembar 2016, str. 6‒7.
  2. Marina Hughson, Muškarci u Srbiji: Druga strana rodne ravnopravnosti (Beograd: Institut za kriminološka i sociološka istraživanja, 2017), str. 118.
  3. Ova analiza je obuhvatila je 470 unosa građana na platformi ,,Oružje na meti“ i priloge štampanih medija koji su se ticali pre svega vrstei oružja korišćenog u incidentima i (ne)legalnosti posedovanja, polu i starosti žrtava i počinilica, njihovom međusobnom odnosu, ishodu u kontekstu incidenata, karakteristikama naselja (urbano ili rurlano) i prostornom okruženju, dobu dana i godine.?
  4. Dr Danijela Spasić i Marina Tadić, Zloupotreba oružja i rodno zasnovano nasilje (Beograd: Centar za istraživanje javnih politika, 2017).


Text was published at: Maš

Photo source: Pål Joakim Pollen / Flickr