What the hell was going on with that whole machine gun affair?
The biggest news item in Iceland during the past month was of course “The Curious Case of the Disappearing, Re-appearing Machine Guns”: the revelation that the police’s National Commissioner had made plans to purchase—with the help of the Coast Guard—150 MP5 submachine guns from Norway. Apparently, the plan entailed making them available to the police force at large. You know, those guys from Instagram, who keep busy posing with kittens and candyfloss, all friendly and adorable.
Predictably, this caused uproar; since Icelanders historically take considerable pride in the fact that they operate a mostly unarmed police force. It also didn’t make any sense: why on Earth did Icelandic police need machine guns all of a sudden?
Watergate via Monty Python
The explanations offered by the heads of police and spokesmen for the government were contradictory and nonsensical. The whole episode quickly turned into a rollercoaster ride of nonsensical excuses and explanations, ranging from absurd declarations from ambitious backbenchers in of the governing coalition and arrogant and infantile attempts at humour from the office of the Prime Minister.
After a few days of rejecting any criticism, the police realized the size of the blowback, backtracked and declared it would not request the guns after all. The guns will therefore remain in the possession of the Customs Office, which has sealed them in a warehouse in the old NATO base at the Keflavík airport. Thus, for the time being, the Icelandic police will remain unarmed, and their Instagram account will remain mostly adorable. Which is great, since Iceland has marketed itself as a peaceful country with kitten-loving cops, elves and fairy tales. We don’t want to bust that bubble, now do we?
Several questions remain. Two of the most pressing ones are: Why did the police request military-grade weaponry in the first place? And why was the ongoing militarization of the police kept a secret?
The head of the Association of Police Officers offered answers to these questions by claiming the guns were necessary because Iceland lacked an army (another fact Icelanders take pride in), so the police had to be able to respond to some unidentified “threats” (presumably terrorist threats). In effect: The Icelandic police thought it should become a sort of National Guard type entity. At the same time, he claimed that there had been no reason to reveal these purchases to the public, since they did not represent a new policy! Why? The police had owned guns (a couple of old machine guns and some pistols) for decades.
How on Earth does adding “military-lite” to the police’s job description not represent a departure, how on Earth does it not warrant a public debate? Keep in mind that Alþingi has debated the need to arm the police on several occasions in recent years—and MPs have always rejected the idea.
Fraud and arms trafficking
Since the police backtracked on its plan to stockpile machine guns, public attention has shifted to the Coast Guard and how they came to purchase the weapons. While the Norwegian authorities have steadfastly maintained that the guns were sold and that they expect a payment, the Coast Guard claims they were a gift. Their argument is that, sure, they signed contracts that mentioned something about payment, but they decided to just ignore those silly clauses. And since the Norwegians had not yet sent them angry letters demanding payment for previous gun shipments, nor had they received any letters from a collections agency, they just assumed the guns were a gift! Airtight logic, right?
This is not just a question of paying the Norwegians: It is also a question of reporting the gun imports to the Customs Office. The Coast Guard decided that because they were going to going to treat the guns they bought as a “gift” they didn’t need to report them to customs.
Which means they essentially smuggled them into the country. Secretive arms trafficking is not what you expect an entity like the Coast Guard to engage in, but that’s exactly what they’ve been doing.
To make matters worse, the gun-sales agreement stipulated the guns were only intended for the Coast Guard: Which means that handing them over to the police would therefore constitute breach of contract. But, the Coast Guard never intended to honour the clause about paying for the goods delivered. Why honour other clauses in the contract?
Then there is the small thing of the Coast Guard and the police’s National Commissioner conspiring to subvert the will of Alþingi to turn the police into some kind of pseudo-military entity, and present a nation that is overwhelmingly opposed to arming the police with a fait accompli.
What were the Norwegians thinking?
Did that whole gun fraud scheme never ring any warning bells in Norway? Did nobody find the sheer size of their “purchases” suspicious? The Coast Guard has purchased a total of 310 machine guns from Norway in recent years, but has only 20 officers trained in handling weapons—out of a total staff of 200 (that number includes office workers).
Are we really to believe that a comically gullible Norwegian Army was misled and defrauded by the Icelandic police and Coast Guard? Or did they simply choose to look the other way, while aiding and abetting a secret plan to arm the Icelandic police, in defiance of the will of both the Icelandic people and their parliament?