Montenegro was shaken earlier this month by a rare mass killing in its royal capital, Cetinje, where the president and both the country's dominant Orthodox churches all reside.
Ten people died when a gunman rampaged through a rental property with a hunting rifle, killing a tenant and her two children before shooting random passersby and other neighbors, including his uncle. His motive unknown, the gunman, 33-year-old Vucko Borilovic, was reportedly shot dead amid a confrontation with police and at least one armed civilian.
"Even the oldest Cetinjians don't remember anything like this," a local said afterward.
It was a brutal reminder of the potential for violence in this Adriatic country of around 600,000 people, which was spared the worst violence but still scarred by intense conflict as the former Yugoslavia broke apart in the 1990s.
But despite signs of public frustration at the prevalence of firearms in a former war zone where gun ownership is widely taken for granted, the slayings mostly stirred divisions along the same cultural and religious lines that have bedeviled Montenegro since it broke away from its union of states with Serbia more than a decade ago.
Already facing another tipping point as lawmakers prepared to oust the country's third government in two years, reactions on social media quickly devolved into warnings of divine retribution or broader political motives when none was apparent.
"The tragedy in Cetinje and certain reactions after it reflect society, and inevitably our political context,"
Podgorica-based psychologist Andja Backovic told RFE/RL's Balkan Service.
"There is already so much accumulated intolerance, misunderstanding, and vengeful emotion in Montenegro.
Quite expectedly, some are trying to instrumentalize this tragedy -- that is, to use it as evidence or an indication of the correctness of their otherwise perverted and frightening attitudes, personal and political."
Montenegro is one of seven states to have eventually emerged from the former Yugoslavia, with particularly tight historical, religious, ethnic, and linguistic ties to Serbia.
Around one-third of Montenegrins regard themselves as Serb, and a majority of the overwhelmingly Orthodox population attends services ministered by a branch of the Serbian Orthodox Church, which doesn't fully recognize Montenegro's independence and has a history of meddling in its politics.
President Milo Djukanovic's effort to rein in the Serbian church in favor of an unrecognized Montenegrin alternative swayed 2020 elections against his long-ruling Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) and in favor of a coalition led by Serbian nationalists, and an agreement on church-state relations led to the fall this month of the latest Montenegrin government, led by Dritan Abazovic.
Against this combustible backdrop of religious, political, and ethno-national tensions that have long hobbled public dialogue in the country, some public figures used the Cetinje tragedy to fuel the underlying fires.
A municipal adviser for tourism, culture, and religious issues in Montenegro's second-largest city, Niksic, went on Facebook on the day of the tragedy to suggest it was "God's punishment for the desecration of holy sites," an oblique reference to places revered by nationalists and Orthodox faithful alike.
The adviser, Miljan Mijuskovic, later deleted the comment and apologized alongside a somber image to mourn the killer's victims. But he also criticized the media for "'monitoring private comments" and accused them of politicizing his words. His Facebook comment, Mijuskovic said, was unofficial and "was nothing more than a Christian call to repentance." He warned that all Montenegrins "should be aware that raising tensions and provocations have never brought good."
Political rivals called for Mijuskovic's dismissal.
Neither police nor local authorities have asserted any connection between the Cetinje gunman's political affiliation and his motives.
Borilovic was a local member of the Social Democrats (SD), a smallish center-left party that emerged seven years ago from a split in the Social Democratic Party (SDP) that used to govern alongside the DPS.
On August 14-15, outspoken columnist Dragan Rosandic described the tragedy in Cetinje as "a consequence of several months of...orgy" by radical ethnic Montenegrin nationalists and "authorities' failure to respond to that phenomenon."
People are very nervous, they have no patience for others, and that's why [gun possession] should be really restricted."-- Zuzana Zivkovic, Budva
He said that "for a year I have been begging, warning, pleading, as a former professional from the security services, for authorities and others to stop this madness -- but no one did anything."
Rosandic linked it to unrest in Niksic in July when police used tear gas to break up a rally on Montenegrin Statehood Day that drew counterdemonstrations from pro-Serbian elements said to have the support of the Serbian church.
The columnist later said police had charged him with a misdemeanor for attributing a political context to the events in Cetinje.
Mijuskovic's and Rosandic's seemingly unfounded suggestions of political or religious motives in the killings are particularly harmful since they come from prominent members of Montenegrin society, according to psychologist Backovic.
"Part of the citizenry identifies with such people, and it's as if they get a kind of permission to behave that way because it comes from people in office," she said. "That's how a kind of social infection spreads in Montenegro."
The furor over religious or political implications and speculation about real or imagined factors in the tragedy crowded out any debate of Montenegro's gun culture or its history of gun violence.
Some Montenegrins say it's finally time to challenge the prevalence of privately owned guns in their country.
"It's scary that we have so many weapons among people, especially now that the situation is tense because of the wars [in Ukraine] and everything," Zuzana Zivkovic, a saleswoman from the coastal city of Budva, told RFE/RL's Balkan Service. "People are very nervous, they have no patience for others, and that's why [gun possession] should be really restricted."
There is no automatic right to possess a firearm in Montenegro, or anywhere else in the region. But in the Balkans, where all but the youngest generation endured ethnically fueled wars that killed an estimated 130,000 people in the early 1990s, the prevalence of firearms and gun-related deaths stand out.
No Balkan country ranks in the top 10 in violent gun deaths, according to UN figures. But Montenegro is currently 12th in the world in firearm-related deaths overall at 8.91 per 100,000 -- well above Serbia, which is 22nd at 3.49. The global average is 6.5, although rates in some of the most problematic countries of Central and South America are in the 30s, 40s, or even 60 in Honduras's case.
And Montenegro has one of the highest rates of gun-assisted suicide in the world. Its 3.4 deaths per 100,000 people in the latest year available (2019) was fifth worst, behind Greenland, the United States, Uruguay, and microstate San Marino.
Montenegro's Interior Ministry teamed up with the United Nations, the European Union, the OSCE, and a local NGO called the Center For Democratic Transition (DCT) in 2015 to encourage the registration or forfeiture of illegally held firearms.
Their Respect Life, Surrender Weapons campaign seized on an amnesty provision in new laws aimed at reducing the number of guns in private hands.
But seven years later, Montenegro and Serbia are still neck-and-neck for the third-highest rates of private gun ownership among 206 countries monitored by GunPolicy.org, a research site run by the University of Sydney's School of Public Health.
"What do I say about so many privately owned guns? It's evil," Drita Harovic, a retired mother of four in Podgorica, told RFE/RL's Balkan Service.
She blamed the state for not further tightening laws and procedures on gun possession.
"We can be cosmopolitan and all, but something gets recorded in the genetic code," Jelena Papovic, an artist in Budva, said. "We live in everyday stress, and if I owned a weapon -- ironically speaking -- I don't know how many times I'd have pulled it out myself by now."