BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — Authorities in Serbia on Sunday displayed stacks of guns and cartons of hand grenades from the thousands of weapons, including anti-tank rocket launchers, that they said people handed over since back-to-back mass shootings stunned the Balkan nation.
The government declared a one-month amnesty period for citizens to surrender unregistered weapons as part of a crackdown on guns following the two shootings in two days this month that left 17 people dead, many of them children.
Populist President Aleksandar Vucic, whose government has faced public pressure in the wake of the separate shootings at a Belgrade school and in two villages, accompanied top police officials to view the assortment of arms arrayed near the town of Smederevo, some 50 kilometers (30 miles) south of the capital.
Officials said residents had turned over about 13,500 items since the amnesty opened on May 8.
Photos from the scene showed lines of rifles, automatic weapons and pistols stacked neatly on the floor in a warehouse along with wooden boxes filled with hand grenades.
Serbia has tens of thousands of weapons brought in from the battlefields of the 1990’s wars in the Balkans. Similar weapons amnesties were held in the past with only limited success.
Vucic said that approximately half of the arms collected since last week had been held illegally, while the other half were registered weapons that citizens nonetheless decided to part with. The relinquished weapons will go to Serbian arms and ammunition factories for potential use by the country’s armed forces, the president said.
Authorities have said that people caught with illegal weapons once the amnesty period ends could face prison sentences of up to 15 years, if they are convicted.
“After June 8, the state will respond with repressive measures and punishments will be very strict,” Vucic said of the post-amnesty period. “What does anyone need an automatic weapon for? Or all these guns?”
Serbia is estimated to be among the top countries in Europe in registered weapons per capita, and many more are held illegally.
Authorities launched the gun crackdown after a 13-year-old boy on May 3 took his father’s gun and opened fire on his fellow-students in an elementary school in central Belgrade. A day later, a 20-year-old man used an automatic weapon to shoot randomly in a rural area south of Belgrade.
Other anti-gun measures announced by Vucic include stricter control of gun owners and shooting ranges. Police officials said gun owners must have a coded safe in which to store their registered weapons and that any guns not kept properly would be confiscated.
Officials plan to order inspections of registered addresses “to check whether there exist conditions for safekeeping,” anti-crime department officer Bojana Otovic Pjanovic said on Serbian state TV network RTS. “If not, the guns will be taken away and punishment will be rigorous.”
Police said that during some of the past collection efforts, people threw their weapons away in garbage containers or left them unattended instead of bringing them to police stations.
Experts believe tens of thousands of illegal weapons have remained unlicensed and out of reach of authorities.
Police official Otovic Pjanovic insisted that after recent shootings “citizens became aware of the risks of keeping guns at home.”
The two mass shooting left 17 people dead and 21 wounded, stunning the nation and triggering calls for changes in the country that has been through decades of turmoil and crises.
Tens of thousands of people have rallied in two protest marches in Belgrade since the shootings, demanding resignations of government ministers and a ban on television stations that promote violent content and host war criminals and crime figures.
Vucic on Sunday rejected opposition calls for the resignation of Interior Minister Bratislav Gasic, who was also present at Sunday’s weapons display. But the president suggested that the government might resign and that he will announce an early election at a rally he has planned for May 26 in Belgrade.
“We have no intention of replacing (interior minister) Gasic, who is doing a great job,” said Vucic. “What have police done wrong?”
Opposition politicians have accused authorities of fueling violence and hate speech against critics, spreading propaganda on mainstream media and imposing autocratic rule in all institutions under Vucic, which they say stokes divisions in society.
On Friday, protesters in Belgrade blocked a key bridge and motorway in the capital to press their demands. Protests also have been held in other Serbian cities and towns, in an outpouring of grief and anger over the shootings and the populist authorities.
Vucic described the bridge blockade as harassment, while he and other officials and media under his control sought to downplay the numbers of protesters.