From Iceland — Cops With Guns: Not Making Us Safer

Cops With Guns: Not Making Us Safer

Published June 13, 2017

Cops With Guns: Not Making Us Safer
Andie Sophia Fontaine
Photo by

On the first Saturday of June, Icelanders participated in the annual Color Run, a normally harmless, family-friendly fun run that passes by without incident every year. This year, however, the event was marred by the presence of dozens of men armed with pistols, casting a shadow of fear, insecurity and the threat of violence over everyone, and sparking a torrent of social media posts expressing shock and grief. The perpetrators were the Icelandic police.

The Icelandic police normally don’t carry guns; that’s the purview of the special forces, who are called in for especially dangerous situations—not normally how you would describe a corporate-funded mini-marathon held on a Saturday morning. But the police have for a long time wanted guns, and have requested permission to not only carry them on their persons, but to also have more powerful guns. This was especially evident two years ago when it came to light that the Icelandic police had clandestinely ordered a cache of MP5 submachine guns from Norway. News of the purchase not only sparked protest in the general public; criminologists and even supervisors within the Icelandic police force itself objected to the premise of their being any need for the weapons.

Guns solve nothing

Björgvin Björgvinsson, the former Chief of the Sexual Assault Division for the Reykjavík Metropolitan Police, contended in 2015 that it would be “pointless” to more heavily arm the average police officer, contrary to the wishes of the National Commissioner of the Icelandic Police. Instead, he argued that the Viking Squad—Iceland’s version of the SWAT—needs to be better trained to deal with high-level threats. Helgi Gunnlaugsson, who is also a professor of sociology at the University of Iceland, told reporters in 2013 that it is patience, not guns, that is amongst the ways to help prevent violence from breaking out.

So why were special forces police at the Color Run, of all places, if law enforcement experts within this country don’t even think regular officers should be carrying them in criminal contexts?

Terrorism, of course

Prime Minister Bjarni Benediktsson, who also chairs Iceland’s new “Security Council,” told reporters that sending special forces to “large public gatherings” was a part of the government’s new strategy to prevent terrorist attacks in Iceland, citing two recent attacks in Britain.

People who carry guns, even law enforcement officials, are prone to find reasons to use them, and unarmed individuals actually respond more aggressively towards people carrying guns, not less.

However, it bears pointing out that, according to the Icelandic police’s own 2017 assessment on the likelihood of a terrorist attack in this country—where no terrorist attack has ever occurred (unless you count Sea Shepherd sinking two whaling boats in 1986)—is about as unlikely as it gets. Their clumsily worded opinion is that “it is in general not possible to rule out the possibility of a terrorist attack,” which can be said about pretty much anywhere in the world. In fact, the “threat level” of a terrorist attack in Iceland has not changed at all over the years.

So if the Prime Minister is citing Manchester, what exactly were we doing after Nice? Chief of the National Police Haraldur Johannessen has offered some vague explanations covering everything from tourists to asylum seekers to foreigners in general, but he, like Bjarni, misses the point: the mere presence of guns increases the risk of violence.

Guns don’t actually make us safer

Bjarni also said that if anything, people should feel more secure seeing armed police standing around at a public gathering. Bjarni would probably do well to read what science has to say about that. In 1967, University of Wisconsin psychology professor Leonard Berkowitz conducted a groundbreaking study on what he called “the weapons effect.” This study, which has been replicated numerous times, found that in fact, the presence of guns can actually increase the likelihood that violence will break out — people who carry guns, even law enforcement officials, are prone to find reasons to use them, and unarmed individuals actually respond more aggressively towards people carrying guns, not less.

It would appear as though the Icelandic police are themselves aware of the weapons effect. Journalist Sölvi Tryggvason, in response to the Color Run news, recalled that when he interviewed a supervisor within the Icelandic police force on the subject of cops and guns three years ago, this supervisor told him, “If regular officers in Iceland start carrying guns, it’s only a matter of time before we see a gunfight in Reykjavík.”

And how about the next protest?

Journalist and Socialist Party of Iceland founder Gunnar Smári Egilsson raised a more chilling question, rhetorically asking on Facebook, “If the police carry guns at Color Run, what are they going to bring to the next protest?” A protest demonstration certainly falls under the category of a “public gathering.” Combine this with the weapons effect, and it very likely is only a matter of time before a civilian ends up shot by a police officer at a protest demonstration in Iceland—a country normally known for entirely peaceful protests.

Iceland stands at a crossroads when it comes to its relationship with weapons. When sociologists, psychologists, and even members of the Icelandic police force themselves all agree that guns won’t make us safer—and will very likely put us in greater danger of violence—then who exactly is the Prime Minister fooling with his talk of public safety? Not, it would appear, the Icelandic public, anyway.

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