In early September, gun control advocates in Serbia will launch an online crowd-mapping platform with the hope of challenging the preconceived notion of a gun culture in a country with one of the highest gun-ownership rates in the world.
Unlike other post-communist transitions, the Western Balkans experienced a series of bloody civil wars with all the hallmarks this kind of conflict brings: immeasurable loss of life and property, perversion of cultural values, media propaganda, and a proliferation of firearms. However, not all of the republics were involved to the same extent or affected equally, and only one, Serbia, was involved in all of them.
GunPolicy.org also lists Serbia’s gun laws as restrictive, meaning that a person seeking to buy a firearm must provide the licensing authority (in this case the Ministry of Interior) with evidence of good character as well as a valid reason why a firearm is needed. After approval, licensed firearm owners are permitted to own as many firearms as they want, but are limited to sixty ammunition packages per calendar year. They can also apply for permits allowing them to carry their firearm in plain view in a public place or keep it hidden. However, semi-automatic assault rifles and all types of automatic firearms are banned for civilian use.
On 6 September, SEESAC will launch an online platform designed to test the idea that guns are entrenched in Serbian society and to find out if there is a silent majority that does not support the widespread existence of firearms. The platform is based on one put out by Ushahidi.
Since SEESAC’s project, Mapping the Gun Culture in Serbia, is a prototype project, it will only concentrate on its participants’ views on gun culture and guns that they’ve seen in public.
“Our goal is to test the accepted attitude that citizens of Serbia are overwhelmingly supportive of weapons possession. In this phase of the project, as we collect public opinion, we also hope to collect information about the circumstances and places where guns are seen in public life,” said Iva Savic, the project’s communications officer, in an email.
Visitors to the site see an interactive map of Serbia that can be filtered based on news, pictures, videos, and reports relating to guns. People are able to see previous reports on gun sightings as well as post their own. There are several ways people can file a report, including through apps available for the iPhone and Android, through email, or by filling out a form on the website. The platform will also be integrated with Twitter and Facebook.
Using the information submitted by anonymous users, the platform will also include animated statistical representations intended to be both educational and draw attention to the existence of the platform and its purpose.
In order to reach as many people as possible, SEESAC enlisted the help of Represent Communications, a public relations company. The company has technical experience in developing apps for Facebook as well as experience using blogs and Twitter to get the message out. The company worked with SEESAC to develop a message that would represent the project as neutrally as possible “so that visitors would not have a preconceived idea whether they should be for or against gun ownership and what it entails,” according to the project site. The company started by submitting five proposals for the slogan of the project. “Targeting Weapons” was chosen because it’s both clear about the topic and not explicitly negative about weapons.
These crowd-sourcing platforms can be very useful to governments in areas where there is little trust in government. “The initial inspiration of the project comes from the ‘I paid a bribe’ web-based platform in India as a way of fighting corruption by public naming and shaming of violators,” Savic said.
Considering that only 6 percent of Serbians have complete trust in their government, this platform could work as an interlocutor on behalf of people who are hesitant to provide information to the Ministry of Interior. The information posted anonymously through the platform could be useful in identifying problem spots and behavior as it relates to illegal gun ownership and use. A further use for the platform would be as a tool for collecting cases of domestic violence in a country where 60 percent of femicides are committed with guns. By using modern technology, SEESAC hopes to create a secure place where people can express their views about guns and anonymously report gun-related activity.
The success of the project depends on the number of reports submitted in the first six weeks of operation. If all goes well, SEESAC will increase the promotion of the platform and potentially engage with other institutions.
After overcoming a few technical difficulties such as receiving an error message when submitting a report or an email and debating whether or not to upgrade to the latest version of Ushahidi 2.5, the platform is in its final stages of development and on target to make its debut. Although the platform is almost operational, Savic asks people not to forget that, “There is a long road ahead of us.”
Photo of guns in Serbia taken from RTS screengrab.