In March, an overzealous gun owner shot a few rounds into the air in Kópavogur, a suburb of Reykjavík. He’d just had the gun serviced and was eager to make sure it was in good working order. Pop! Pop! Pop!
Police were called to the scene, the news media rolled up, people speculated that someone might have been hurt. No one knew what was going on, no one could find any injured party, but neighbours swore they’d heard gunshots coming from somewhere nearby. This was a big deal. National news coverage big.
The gun owner came forward the next day and apologised. Police subsequently seized the gun in question, alongside all other weapons in his collection, then revoked his gun licence.
You might think that this shook the nation because gun ownership is rare, but you’d be wrong.
According to the research organisation Gun Policy, the estimated total of civilian-owned guns in Iceland is about 90,000.
That’s 90,000 guns for 330,000 people. Roughly a third, so chances are if you are in a room with ten Icelanders, about two or three of them are gun owners. In the United States, by contrast, there are far more guns per household but the rate of gun ownership is just a little above one third, so similar to Iceland.
In spite of this high rate of civilian gun ownership, Iceland still has one of the lowest crime rates in the world.
The UN’s Global Study on Homicide from 2013 cites that between 2005 and 2012, zero percent of violent deaths in Iceland were caused by a firearm. In the United States in the same time period, the rate of violent deaths caused by firearms was between 58-61%.
But why? How is it possible for the gun ownership in Iceland to be on par with countries plagued by gun violence, without any actual gun crime?
It’s a real schlep to get a gun
“We do not know exactly why gun crime is so low,” said Jónas Hafsteinsson, who works in the Icelandic Police’s gun licensing department. “Maybe because it is hard to get a licence?”
In order to get a gun and a hunting licence, Icelanders have to do paperwork for the police, the magistrate, and even the Environment Agency of Iceland.
Prospective gun owners need to prove they have no criminal record. They need to be evaluated by a doctor to prove they are of sound mind and have good enough eyesight. They have to buy and read two books, attend a three-day course and score at least 75% on exams regarding gun safety, management, what animals are allowed to be hunted and when, and so on. Then there’s a practical exam to prove they know how to handle a gun safely.
Once Icelanders finally have their licence, they need to prove they have a gun safe to lock the weapons in, plus a separate place away from the gun safe to lock the ammunition.
Basically, it’s a real schlep for a civilian to get a gun and there are a lot of legal checkpoints to ensure public safety.
A question of practicality
“My dad had guns and hunted. So guns were always around when I was a boy,” says gun owner and hunting enthusiast Árni Leósson. “When I got older I got really into fly-fishing and from there I got interested in hunting but to do that I had to get my own guns. It was just pragmatism and I think the reason gun crime is so alien in Iceland is the ‘gun culture.’ In Iceland guns are for practical things like hunting and not for protection. We have the police for that.”
Indeed even the regular police do not use guns; only special forces carry firearms. Up until earlier this month —when special forces turned up armed to the annual Color Run—Icelandic civilians had never had to contend with seeing guns in public. This act by the police was so unusual and made people so uncomfortable that there has been a series of public complaints about the police bringing guns to a family event, especially given that studies show that the presence of armed police escalates tension, not the other way around.
The meaning of guns
“In places like the US, a firearm is believed to be important for self-defence and to deter crime but this idea is foreign here,” says Helgi Gunnlaugsson, a professor of sociology at the University of Iceland. “Here we look at a gun, or a pistol, as an object for mostly sports and hunting animals. Very few Icelanders believe guns are important to defend yourself or your family. So even if you own a gun, and quite a few do, the gun is not to be aimed at other persons. It actually never really crosses our mind to do that.”
“This cultural meaning and difference is not something you can change overnight with a stricter or more lenient gun control legislation—this difference runs much deeper than that,” argues Helgi, adding that when people view guns as a tool of self-defence, they are more likely to keep guns more readily accessible in the household, in order to grab it in case of an emergency—which leads to greater rates of accidental shootings or murders while people are intoxicated.
Additional and more general factors also contribute to Iceland’s low gun crime rate. Historically, in order to make it through the long winters, everyone needed to pitch in to simply survive, meaning there is a short social distance between Icelanders.
People with power are not impossible to reach, it is not impossible to be heard. Add to that a more equal society with low rates of extreme wealth and extreme poverty and you neuter a lot of aggression and fear.
And that’s the real danger, let’s not forget. Fear.