The statistics about gun ownership regionwide are surprising and the results can be deadly. In Albania alone, for example, analyst Jonuz Kola estimated this summer that 6% to 9% of the population has a weapon in the home. Scores of accidental shootings occur, including that of a 9-year-old in Shkodra, who died at the hands of his 11-year-old brother on July 18th.
Xhavit Shala, an expert within the Albanian Interior Ministry notes that in 1997, a considerable amount of weapons ended up in the hands of civilians, increasing criminality: "From domestic violence to the organised crime," he tells SETimes.
The South Eastern and Eastern Europe Clearinghouse for the Control of Small Arms and Light Weapons (SEESAC) is spearheading efforts to boost national and regional capacities to control and reduce the spread and misuse of small and light weapons.
Iva Savic, project communications officer of the SEESAC Office in Belgrade, tells SETimes "De-militarisation is still considered an important task which is yet to be fully tackled by the governments in the region."
She acknowledges that today SEESAC lacks reliable and comprehensive data on the exact number of illegal weapons circulating in various countries. But a 2007 SEESAC study concluded that "the Western Balkans, with a population of 19.6 million people, has almost 4,280,000 weapons in the hands of civilians."
In Kosovo, the daily Koha Ditore quoted a UNDP survey. It found that out of 400,000 weapons in the hands of the citizens, 330,000 are illegal.
Mimoza Shahini, a leading Kosovo psychologist, tells SETimes, "Free access to the weapons presents a permanent danger not only for the physical safety of children ... but also plays a role in the social and moral maturity of a child. Using weapons "increases the level of delinquency especially among young people" and offers them a means for suicide. Those who witness gun violence, she adds, "suffer post-traumatic stress disorder".
Savic says there is a clear commitment by governments in the region to tackle the issue of illegal weapons possession. She notes that the Croatia's interior ministry launched a nationwide awareness-raising and arms collection campaign under the slogan "Less Arms, Less Tragedies". Such programmes, says Savic, "should help change the current gun culture in the region, encourage the voluntary return of illegal weapons and stifle the desire to acquire them in the future".
She adds that since 2007, the Croatian government has managed to collect 58,818 small arms and explosive devices, almost two million rounds of ammunition and nearly 2 tonnes of explosives from civilian homes. Hopefully, a similar campaign will begin in Serbia within months, she tells SETimes.
In addition, in both Serbia and Croatia, there are ongoing Small Arms and Light Weapons (SALW) destruction campaigns. With the assistance of SEESAC and the EU, Serbia's interior ministry destroyed 28,285 surplus and confiscated weapons in 2010 and approximately 27,000 in 2009.
Croatia's interior ministry began its campaign this year. "So far, 30,000 weapons have been earmarked for destruction, while 7,000 have already been disposed of this year," says Savic.
To prevent further proliferation, some governments in the region are taking extra steps to secure their own storage sites through infrastructure improvements. SEESAC is currently helping the governments of both Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina strengthen security at their SALW storage sites.
In May for example, the reconstruction of the Montenegrin ammunition storage site "Taras" was completed with the help of SEESAC and the EU.
One other option should be considered, says Savic, "In this post-conflict region, more rigorous implementation of existing laws in cases of possession of an illegal weapon would significantly aid efforts to collect illegally owned weapons."
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