GUNS! GUNS! GUNS?

One of the reasons I’ve elected to live in Croatia is the absence of random, violent crime. While some of the US’s biggest cities have annual murders topping over 400, homicide in any Croatian city is almost unheard of. In 2009 there were 23 murders by gun in the entire country. The annual rate of homicide by gun per 100,000 people is 0.52. While in the US the same rate is 2.98.

Now I thought that all of this was a result of Croatia having tougher gun laws than the United States. I assumed that criminals couldn’t easily obtain guns and so there were less murders and violence. Owning a gun in Croatia is an arduous process. Not only do you have to obtain a license, but the police actually come to your apartment and interview your neighbors about what kind of person you are. They can even interview your friends and family. Obtaining a gun in Croatia is more like working for the Federal Government in the US and having to pass the Secret Service’s security clearance. But then my Croatian friends would laugh at me and say, “No, lots of people have guns in Croatia, we had a war you know.” I thought they were just being dramatic. Then I looked at the statistics on gun ownership in Croatia. I was bit surprised, of the estimated 960,000 guns in civilian hands in Croatia, 576,000 of them are unregistered. This means the police do not know who has them. Which means they should be perfect for criminals to use. Not to mention that in Serbia the number of unregistered firearms is 944,000 out of 3 million. If you were enterprising criminal it wouldn’t be that hard to bring some of these abundant weapons from Serbia into Croatia. And yet, the murder rate and overall rate of violent crime in Croatia is low.

Maybe you’re thinking Croatia doesn’t exhibit other elements that we associate with crime. Well its certainly poor and getting poorer. GDP per capita has dropped in the last three years. Unemployment is around 20 percent, and even higher among young males. The country also suffered through a war not too long ago, and yet Croatia as an entire country is relatively safer than any major city in the US.
So, where I used to want to explain the difference as a result of the availability of guns I’m now more likely to believe the old saying “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” Once when I was talking to an American friend about this he said he just thought people here (in Croatia) were socially different then Americans and that this somehow led them to be less prone to violence. I’m not entirely sure I believe this, but I am beginning to believe part of it. Here are a few possible explanations for Croatia’s low crime rate:

1) Preschool. Almost every kid in Croatia attends at least 1 year of preschool. It is cheap and has a good quality. To be a preschool teacher you must have a bachelors degree in education. According to the Perry Preschool Project, young boys who attend one year of preschool are half as likely to be arrested than those that don’t.

2) Nosy neighbors. There is no easy way to put this. In Croatia everyone is up in your business! And their not afraid to to tell you when your are doing something wrong (or at least gossip about you to the other neighbors). When it comes to my child rearing skills old ladies will tell it to my face that I’m putting my daughter in jeopardy if she is barefoot or hatless. While this used to bug me to no end I now think its kind of nice that there is such a concern for the well being of my kid by my neighbors (and sometimes complete and total strangers.) There is very much the idea that people will see and hear what you do, so you better be on your best behavior. I imagine this is a deterrent to quite a few would-be-criminals. The person you might be robbing might also be your cousin’s sister’s neighbor, and in that case, you aunty, grandma, mother, and the other neighbors will all hear about it!

3) They’ve had enough violence. My first time in the Balkans was through Sarajevo. Before that trip I was like any Oklahoman, a gun owning one. I thought owning guns and having the ability to “defend” yourself was an important part of being an American. Then I saw Sarajevo and East Mostar. Almost every surface in sight was riddle with bullet holes or damage from exploding shells. Scorch marks still marred the ruins of buildings that burned down almost twenty years before. Any need for firearms in Oklahoma was now, in my mind, imaginary. Here in the Balkans there had been a need, but as many of the region’s residents expressed to me that need had also been invented. The bigger point is that after such violence, after Sarajevo, Mostar, and Vukovar people weren’t clinging to their guns, they weren’t paranoid about bumps in the night, they were tired of violence and tired of guns. So maybe the legacy of the last wars has left the populace with a tragic appreciation for violence that people in the US fail to grasp.

Any other explanations would be appreciated.