Serbia and the US both endured brutal mass killings this past week. The difference in their approaches to them speaks volumes, but not just in the commonly reported way.

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Last Wednesday, a 13-year-old opened fire on students in his school, killing nine and wounding seven others, possibly following the “kill list” he’d made in advance. He will not be prosecuted due to his age, but while he undergoes psychiatric evaluation his parents were arrested, and his father, the owner of the firearms used, faces up to 12 years in prison on a charge against general security.

The next day, eight were killed and thirteen wounded in a series of drive-by shootings by a 21-year-old bearing a neo-Nazi slogan on his shirt, who was arrested after an all-night manhunt.

The president announced immediate legal reforms for a country with the fifth-highest rate of gun ownership in the world. These reforms include a moratorium on new licensing outside of hunting, a review of existing licenses, increased monitoring of shooting range usage, and greater surveillance of how gun owners are storing their weapons. “We will do an almost complete disarming,” he announced soon after the two tragic events.

His country’s previous major shooting was in 2013, by a war veteran who killed thirteen others before dying of wounds himself, in a bitter small-town massacre shaped in part by job loss, domestic disturbance, and a history of family mental illness.

But the difference between Serbia and the United States, which on that same Wednesday had just formally charged a massacre suspect who’d gunned down five civilians in Texas on April 28, and which went on to see nine killed and seven injured in a Texas outlet mall massacre on May 6, before a car on May 7 drove into throngs at a Texas migrant center, killing eight and injuring a dozen?

It’s that one country has an actual, living history of civil war.

The other is getting there.

Civil war and attitudes toward violence

Serbia, a country of at least 6.7 million (not counting Kosovo), has the highest rate of civilian gun ownership in Europe, at around 39 firearms per 100 citizens. More than 1.5 million of those firearms are unregistered, and the weapons the country does have in civilian hands are largely carry-overs from the Balkan and Yugoslav wars. Neighborhood disputes routinely end in the permanent confiscation of firearms, and amnesty rules are robust to encourage a proper handover of other such property, but it’s also understood that most families keep their firearms symbolically, as a hold-over from those more violent eras.

Increased regulation has been in process since 2015, with greater scrutiny for the acquisition of peacetime firearms. Serbian gun culture is such that, at the time of the school shooting, many hold it against the father that he took his young son to the shooting range.

The US, a country of 332 million, has 120.4 firearms per 100 citizens, and around 300 of its 400 million firearms are considered unregistered. It is in fact illegal, under the Firearm Owners Protection Act of 1986, to keep a federal or state database or registry that ties a firearm to its owner, with very few exceptions for certain weapons classes.

Whenever conversation about regulation arises, especially in the wake of the country’s relentless mass shootings (on pace for a record-breaking year), the debate is immediately tied up in the constitutional question: defense of the “right to bear arms” in the Second Amendment. This debate has many flavors: some deflect into mental health issues; blame declining Christianity, single mothers, and video games; or mock distraught citizens for not knowing what the “AR” in “AR-15” stands for while calling for related weapons bans.

READ: “Between massacres: A uniquely American play in seven acts”

All of it is beside the point.

Because something deeper is at work in a country that responds to mass death in this immediately gamified, pedantic, and otherwise technicality-oriented way.

Many countries in the world have had active, recent histories of civil war. Serbia is one of them. Their citizens know full well what it’s like to be unable to leave a village to visit family, say, because of street fighting and aerial bombardment, paramilitary action and refugee flight. They know what it’s like to have distribution networks collapse, energy grids undergo sabotage, and neighbors turn against neighbors over ethnic divisions in massive, nationalist struggles for state identity. They know the brutality of total war, and not just the kind where one sends soldiers off to fight in other lands.

The modern US is only just getting there.

When neighbors aren’t even willing to engage in the civic exercise of hashing out how to reduce the incidence of senseless death—when they see mass murders less as tragedies and more as “political leverage”—it’s not just “the guns” anymore.

Earlier this year, Time and other major publications reported on a trend that has national security watchers nervous: the possibility that extremist groups are escalating attacks on the US power grid. Last year, a survey found that 40 percent of US citizens (and more than half of “strong Republicans”) think it likely that a civil war will happen in the next ten years. Granted, the form of that civil war isn’t expected to be all-consuming: a matter of heightened state-level violence, more than sweeping federal attacks. But this still puts the US on track to share the destiny of many other modern nations, like Colombia, where some departments and remote regions are still common sites of paramilitary and cartel action.

Serbia, conversely—having gone through civil war recently, and understanding the value and the fragility of peace—is more than willing to renegotiate its hard-won social contract and even its strong gun culture to continue to improve quality of life for citizens today.

But the very fact that US discourse around mass death is immediately gamified in local media and government office, especially when the tool of this violence is a firearm, speaks to a much deeper cultural crisis of identity, values, and confidence in a shared future.

“It’s the guns, stupid” is a common invocation after another senseless loss of life to a mass shooting in the US. And it’s a challenging one, too, especially as more queer, BIPOC, and unhoused people are articulating the greater safety they feel with firearms for self-defense, in a political climate where state officials are less likely to value their protection. Two very complex and competing schools of societal distrust, in other words, are colliding in the current US: a breakdown of confidence in armed authorities, and an abject horror around the rise of unregulated armed civilians, and its negative impact on overall civic life.

But consider the reason one even has to utter such a phrase. To argue over it. To entrench oneself in one position or another around it.

When neighbors aren’t even willing to engage in the civic exercise of hashing out how to reduce the incidence of senseless death—when they see mass murders less as tragedies and more as “political leverage” to be shut down at the outset—it’s not just “the guns” anymore. It’s two very divided contemporary Americas, on the verge of much deeper violence to defend distinct ideas of what freedom even means.

And some are champing at the bit for these divisions to worsen.

Anything to break the pressure of this agonizing standstill, with all its disruptions of public safety and security that can now happen most anytime and anywhere.

But ask anyone from countries that have seen active civil wars in their lifetimes:

If there is any way to avoid one’s home becoming a war zone, one should take it.

What could a release valve from this crisis look like, within the so-called “US” of A?

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GLOBAL HUMANIST SHOPTALK M L Clark is a Canadian writer by birth, now based in Medellín, Colombia, who publishes speculative fiction and humanist essays with a focus on imagining a more just world.