Enticing, not inciting, gun owners

A gun amnesty in Serbia after two mass shootings helps open a dialogue with gun owners over the source of safety in society.

A mural in Belgrade, Serbia, reads: "God, please block the weapons, and save this world."

Three decades after bringing mass violence to its Balkan neighbors, Serbia has joined a small number of countries trying a novel way to reduce gun violence at home. On May 8, after two mass shootings within two days that killed 18 people, the government in Belgrade announced a general amnesty for anyone turning in a gun – illegal or legal. Within a week, more than 13,500 weapons of various types were collected.

More importantly, the amnesty, which runs through June 8, has helped open a dialogue with legal gun owners on their role in perpetuating a gun culture that, in many countries, can lead to a rise in suicides and other gun violence. With a population of about 6.8 million, Serbia ranks among the highest in Europe in gun ownership. After the shootings, citizens are now “aware of the risks of keeping guns at home,” one Serbian police official told Associated Press.

The Serbian president, Aleksandar Vucic, called the amnesty’s success in collecting guns “a great step forward for a safer environment for our children” and “all our people.” In addition, the government has proposed tighter rules on gun ownership while many Serbs are calling for curbs on the depiction of fictional gun violence in TV shows and movies.

Gun amnesties are only one tool to entice gun owners into choosing to disarm. Many governments also offer to buy weapons, no questions asked. In Australia, buyback programs and other measures have helped build a political consensus on ways to ensure that gun practices and policies improve safety in a community.

About 20% of guns in Australia have been turned in since 1997 when such incentives were first offered following a mass shooting. “Gun policy reforms were supported by all major political parties,” states a 2022 study by the University of Sydney. “The success of firearm regulation has since become a source of pride for many Australians.”

Serbia has a long way to go to achieve what President Vucic calls the “almost complete disarmament” of the country. Yet like many countries, it is now learning to engage gun owners rather than enrage them. Fostering a dialogue about people’s motives for gun ownership – such as lack of trust in government or fear of crime – can bring a society together to look at the core foundations for peace.

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