Celebratory shooting is a tradition that should remain in the past
Joint interview: Oliver Spasovski, Minister of Interior and Armen Grigoryan, UNDP Resident Representative
Question: Celebratory shooting is a common occurrence in the Balkan countries, and North Macedonia is no exception. What measures is the Ministry of Interior taking to prevent incidents and reduce celebratory gunfire?
Spasovski: It is indisputable that these phenomena disturb the citizens and cause a feeling of fear and danger among them, so consequently we are obliged to oppose them, using all the legal mechanisms available to us, including preventive action. You know, repressive response – as a last resort, does not necessarily mean or guarantee that a particular phenomenon will surely be eliminated. That is why I say that punishment should be used as a last resort.
After all, practice clearly shows that the majority of the socio-deviant phenomena have more complex genesis and causes, the detection, demystification and prevention of which depends on a large number of institutional and social factors, and not only on how much and how the police act. As a rule, it always comes at the end, after the phenomenon has already happened. It is the same with the use of weapons at celebrations and festivities. At the same time, I want to emphasize that the police act on every complaint filed, without exception. For the purpose of illustration, in the period from October 2021 to October 2022, the police recorded 14 cases of misuse of weapons at festivities and celebrations. Of course, almost all of them were criminally prosecuted, which resulted in seven crimes of “causing a general danger”, one crime of “unauthorized manufacture, possession, mediation and trade in weapons or explosive materials”, as well as six misdemeanors under the Law on Misdemeanors against the Public Order and Peace.
However, fully aware that it is a phenomenon that has multifaceted causes, i.e., it has its roots in many other social, cultural, educational, traditionalist and other factors, we as the Ministry of Interior are taking a step further when it comes to this phenomenon, as well as to other socio-pathological phenomena, such as drug abuse, alcohol abuse, violence, etc. and we try to prevent it in its earliest stage. Through preventive and educational action, we work to change that matrix of thinking and understanding about the use of weapons or pyrotechnics at celebrations and festivities. This is precisely the case with the last activity that we conducted together with our partners from UNDP, which is realized under the motto “Every bullet has a target! Celebrate with your heart, not your gun!”.
Mr. Grigoryan, UNDP is continuously working on projects aimed at providing support to institutions in the fight against illegal weapons, as well as reducing the number of incidents related to the misuse of small arms and light weapons. Are you satisfied with the results?
Grigoryan: Illegal weapons are one of the most common causes of armed incidents in the country, but also in general on the territory of the Western Balkans. This was precisely the impetus for the UNDP Office, in the last few years, to seriously devote itself to supporting the institutions whose competence encompasses the fight against illegal weapons. We have a team of experts working on the implementation of the Roadmap for a sustainable solution to the illegal possession, misuse and trafficking of Small Arms and Light Weapons (SALW) and their ammunition in the Western Balkans by 2024. In the past three years, we have implemented two projects in cooperation with the Ministry of Interior. They include activities with which we strengthened the capacities of the MOI for keeping electronic records and monitoring every piece of small arms and light weapons from the entry into the country, all the way to the final buyer. Additionally, we are working on raising the public awareness about the consequences of gun misuse. The results are really positive and visible, but it is a fact that there is still a lot of work to be done when it comes to this problem. That is why, in 2023, we are continuing with two new projects, one of which will focus on even greater control and monitoring of small arms and light weapons, and the second refers to the analysis of the legislation related to vulnerable groups in the area of computer crime. These new initiatives are another confirmation that our national partners and donors are satisfied with the results achieved and the progress made.
Question: Minister Spasovski, how often do you receive complaints of celebratory shooting? Has there been a change in the public awareness in recent years regarding the dangers arising from the carrying and misuse of small arms and light weapons?
Spasovski: According to our analytical data, citizens react almost as a rule after some direct damage or the threat of a stray bullet is perceived. Of course, the fact is evident, especially in urban areas, that people are increasingly and more loudly declaring their intolerance towards this phenomenon, which is undoubtedly the result of the increased public awareness to prevent the misuse of weapons and the use of pyrotechnics at family celebrations.
It is up to us to continue working in that direction, through the creation and implementation of specific activities. As an example, I will mention the Western Balkans Small arms and Light Weapons (SALW) Control Roadmap, on the basis of which the new National Small Arms and Light Weapons (SALW) Control Strategy and Action Plan for the period 2022-2024 were prepared, which, in general, will contribute to taking a further step towards raising the public awareness about the dangers arising from the carrying and misuse of small arms and light weapons. Finally, the legal amendments we are implementing in the Law on Weapons, and which mean further harmonization of our legislation with the European legislation, are also aimed at normatively optimizing the control of small arms and light weapons. All this shows that we are firmly determined to minimize the occurrence of this phenomenon as much as possible.
Question: When bullets are shot into the air, many people say that they are not aiming at a specific target and thus think that their activity is harmless, even though this is not true. Can you explain why shooting bullets into the air is dangerous?
Spasovski: People often believe that “it will not or cannot happen to me” or that it is something harmless, which, apart from noise, cannot cause any harm. However, that is a completely wrong attitude! It is most accurate to say that this false security is practically a hazard for someone’s health and life. I believe that public memory is still fresh about the events involving children maimed by pyrotechnics or about the case of the 19-year-old girl who tragically lost her life from a stray bullet at the New Year’s Eve celebration in Skopje less than two decades ago. The bullet was probably fired by someone who previously thought they were doing nothing terrible and dangerous.
Additionally, celebrations and festivities, the very atmosphere that involves alcohol consumption, the impaired reasoning of the perpetrator and a number of other factors, contribute to the existence of a high degree of danger, i.e., such a way of celebrating has a serious potential to cause a tragedy. Or, as the saying goes, things can get out of hand. And that is undoubtedly so, because weapons do not belong at celebrations.
Question: Are people sufficiently familiar with the laws and penalties for carrying and using small arms and light weapons?
Spasovski: The principle of transparency, timely and comprehensive information of the citizens, is one of the core standards of our daily work. We, as the MOI, constantly, through various forms of communication, try to establish the greatest degree of public availability of data from all domains of our work. That is why I am confident that the majority of the public has, even if only partial, information about this issue. Of course, we as a citizen’s service, are obliged and ready to make even more efforts to reach out to citizens, to appeal, inform, communicate, explaining all the negative consequences of the illicit use of small arms and light weapons and the threats that this poses to our loved ones, our friends, our fellow citizens.
Mr. Grigoryan, what is the status of North Macedonia in terms of dealing with the misuse of SALW compared to other Western Balkan countries?
Grigoryan: According to our knowledge, there is visible progress in increasing the capacities of the Ministry of Interior, at all levels of action. However, what is even more significant is the cooperation that has been established between all the countries of the Western Balkans in the fight to achieve the common goal, reducing crime related to the use of SALW, as well as the movement of weapons from the Western Balkans to the countries of the European Union. Here, I would like to share the data of the Armed Violence Monitoring Platform of SEESAC that in 2021 there were 124 shooting incidents at celebrations in the territory of the Western Balkans. Moreover, 76.8% of the weapons used in these incidents were illegal.
Question: Minister Spasovski, how often are the weapons used for celebratory shooting illegal? What is the MOI doing to reduce the presence of illegal weapons?
Spasovski: Of course, there are cases where illegal weapons are used, although our position is firm regarding the misuse of weapons at celebrations and festivities, and that is – zero tolerance. The MOI, within the framework of the competent organizational units, as part of its legal competences and duties, is constantly working to discover new cases of illicit trade in weapons, ammunition, explosive substances and the like. As an illustration, I will point out that during this year, as of October 31st, 161 crimes have been detected in the area of illicit trade in weapons, and criminal charges were filed against a total of 167 perpetrators. Moreover, as a result of these cleared crimes, 106 weapons, 4,133 pieces of ammunition, 78,400 firecrackers, 228 fireworks, 541 pyrotechnic rockets and other items were discovered and seized. For comparison, in the same period last year, we recorded a smaller number of crimes – 154, but 304 weapons (141 of which were grenades), 39 boxes of ammunition and 8,503 pieces of ammunition, 97,993 firecrackers, 913 fireworks, 548 pyrotechnic rockets and other items were seized.
What should be emphasized is the fact that the police continue their investigative activity in this segment of the illicit trade in weapons, while making additional efforts to approach this type of crime from a preventive and educational perspective, by creating and using campaigns, such as the ongoing campaign “Every bullet has a target! Celebrate with your heart, not your gun!”.
Mr. Grigoryan, this campaign is focused precisely on eradicating celebratory shooting as a tradition in these areas. This activity is in fact part of a series of campaigns carried out in the past years under the slogan “Celebrate with your heart, not your gun”. Did these campaigns deliver results?
Grigoryan: The target group of the campaigns carried out thus far was young men, who are the most frequent perpetrators in recorded cases of celebratory shooting, mainly driven by the motive to show off their masculinity and dominance. This time we made a step further and included students in the campaign, because we believe that we should act on the dangers of stray bullets from an early age. The campaign also has an educational component. For example, we shared the data that a stray bullet can travel about 2.5 kilometers, and even further, depending on the caliber and angle at which it was fired, before it hits the ground again. With the answers provided by the campaign, we wanted to destroy the myths and stereotypes that a bullet fired into the air is not a threat. We believe that the impact is significant when a gun owner hears from an expert that a bullet shot into the air can injure someone nearby, as well as someone who is far away and completely unaware of the danger.
This campaign is carried out simultaneously in North Macedonia and in Kosovo as part of the project “Cross-Border Integrated Institutional Approach Towards Combating Illicit Arms Trafficking (IAT) and Small Arms and Light Weapons (SALW)”, which is implemented with the financial support of Germany, the United Kingdom, France, Sweden, the Netherlands and Norway through the Multi-Partner Trust Fund, and it is also supported by the European Union.
The result we see from the campaigns is the raised awareness of the citizens. We will continue with these campaigns, because we believe that in the future all citizens should be able to recognize and condemn the use of weapons at celebrations, in order to protect their loved ones and that these dangerous practices should forever remain in the past.