Scores of Serbian students, many wearing black and carrying flowers, paid silent homage on Thursday to peers killed a day earlier when a 13-year-old boy used his father’s guns in a school shooting rampage that sent shockwaves through the nation and triggered moves to boost gun control.
The students filled the streets around the school in central Belgrade as they streamed in from all over the city. Earlier, thousands had lined up to lay flowers, light candles and leave toys to commemorate the eight children and a school guard who were killed on Wednesday morning.
People cried and hugged outside the school as they stood in front of heaps of flowers, small teddy bears, soccer balls. A gray and pink toy elephant was placed by the school fence along with messages of grief, and a girl’s ballet shoes hung from the fence.
The Balkan nation is struggling to come to terms with what has happened. Though awash with weapons left over from the wars of the 1990s, mass shootings still have been extremely rare — and this is the first school shooting in Serbia’s modern history.
The tragedy also sparked a debate about the general state of the nation following decades of crises and conflicts whose aftermath have created a state of permanent insecurity and instability, along with deep political divisions.
Authorities on Thursday moved to boost gun control, as police urged citizens to lock up their guns and keep them safe, away from children.
Police have said that the teen used his father’s guns to carry out the attack. He had planned it for a month, drew sketches of classrooms and made lists of the children he planned to kill, police said on Wednesday.
The boy, who had visited shooting ranges with his father and apparently had the code to his father’s safe, took two guns from the safe where they were stored together with the bullets, police said on Wednesday.
“The Ministry of Interior is appealing to all gun owners to store their guns with care, locked up in safes or closets so they are out of reach of others, particularly children,” police said in a statement that also announced tightened controls on gun owners in the future.
The shooting on Wednesday morning in Vladislav Ribnikar primary school also left seven people hospitalized — six children and a teacher. One girl who was shot in the head remains in a life-threatening condition, and a boy is in serious condition with spinal injuries, doctors said on Thursday morning.
To help people deal with the tragedy, authorities announced they were setting up a helpline. Hundreds answered a call to donate blood for the wounded victims. A three-day mourning period will begin Friday morning.
Serbian teachers’ unions announced protests and strikes to demand changes and warn about a crisis in the school system. Authorities shrugged off responsibility, with some officials blaming Western influence rather than a deep social crisis in the country.
The shooter, whom the police identified as Kosta Kecmanovic, has not given any motive for his actions.
Upon entering his school, Kecmanovic first killed the guard and three students in the hallway. He then went to the history classroom where he shot the teacher before turning his gun on the students.
Kecmanovic then unloaded the gun in the school yard and called the police himself, although they had already received an alert from a school official. When he called, Kecmanovic told duty officers he was a “psychopath who needs to calm down,” police said.
Those killed were seven girls, one boy and the school security guard. One of the girls was a French citizen, France’s foreign ministry said.
Authorities have said that Kecmanovic is too young to be charged and tried. He has been placed in a mental institution while his father has been detained on suspicion of endangering public security because his son got hold of the guns.
“I think we are all guilty. I think each one of us has some responsibility, that we allowed some things we should not allow (to happen),” said Zoran Sefik, a Belgrade resident, during Wednesday evening’s vigil near the school.
Jovan Lazovic, another Belgrade resident, said he was not surprised: “It was a matter of days when something like this could happen, having in mind what happening in the world and here,” he said.
Gun culture is widespread in Serbia and elsewhere in the Balkans: The region is among the top in Europe in the number of guns per capita. Guns are often fired into the air at celebrations and the cult of the warrior is part of national identity. Still, the last mass shooting was in 2013 when a war veteran killed 13 people in a central Serbian village.
Experts have repeatedly warned of the danger posed by the number of weapons in a highly divided country like Serbia, where convicted war criminals are glorified and violence against minority groups often goes unpunished. They also note that decades of instability stemming from the conflicts of the 1990s as well as ongoing economic hardship could trigger such outbursts.
“We have had too much violence for too long,” psychologist Zarko Trebjesanin told N1 television. “Children copy models. We need to eliminate negative models ... and create a different system of values.”
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