Lots of guns, little violence: Shooting highlights armed but peaceful Iceland

Until Monday, when cops killed a man in a Reykjavik suburb, Iceland's police had never fired a shot during an operation – despite roughly a third of Icelanders owning guns.

Arni Torfason/AP
Icelandic police officers attend a demonstration outside the Central Bank of Iceland where the protesters were demanding the resignation of the Chairman of the Central bank, David Oddsson, in Reykjavik Oct. 10, 2008.
Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP/File
This 2008 file photo shows a view across Reykjavík, Iceland from Öskjuhlíd Hill.

A 59-year-old man was shot and killed by police, who were called to the man's apartment east of Iceland's capital because someone reported gunshots being fired inside. It's an event that might not even make the news in some countries.

In Reykjavik, the incident was front-page coverage and ultimately garnered a national apology from the country's top police official: It was the first time that the country's police have ever shot anybody in an operation. Ever.

There are many reasons for this, from a tiny population to the fact that most cops don't even carry guns. They don't usually need to: the overall homicide rate in Iceland for 2009 was 1. That puts its homicide rate at 0.3 per 100,000 people, compared to the US where 15,241 were killed and the rate reached 5.0 in 2009. 

Surely this must mean that, unlike in the US, firearms are rare in Iceland. But that's not the case, according to Bloomberg News's Marc Champion, who writes:

The population of the island is 325,000, while the number of registered firearms is 90,000, which when you consider that Iceland also has children, suggests that more than a third of the population is armed. So why don't Iceland's police have to shoot people?

He goes on to cite a study published in the St. Louis Post Dispatch, in which police in that city, which has about the same population as the whole of Iceland, shot at suspects 98 times between 2008 to 2011. Twelve of them died.

Mr. Champion writes:

I don't think you can say the difference is because a lot of Iceland is rural -- all but about 25,000 of the population are urban dwellers. And the National Rifle Association will be pleased to hear that it can't all be accounted for by gun ownership: True, the US has almost 90 guns per 100 people, compared with 30 per 100 in Iceland, but if gun ownership were the key difference you would expect a much narrower differential in police shootings.

The incident happened early Monday morning after officers were called to the apartment in a suburb of the capital, according to Iceland and foreign media accounts. When efforts to subdue the man failed, a special armed unit tried to enter the home. The man shot at them, then police shot back. The man died at the hospital, and the motives in this case remain unclear. Two of the police officers were slightly wounded. 

"Police regret this incident and would like to extend their condolences to the family of the man," Icelandic police chief Haraldur Johannessen said, according to the BBC, adding that the shooting was “without precedent.” 

That news piece links to another BBC one, written by an American law student who wrote a thesis about why violent crime is so low in Iceland, despite relatively high rates of gun ownership. Given this week's incident, his observations remain pertinent:

Crimes in Iceland - when they occur - usually do not involve firearms, though Icelanders own plenty of guns.

GunPolicy.org estimates there are approximately 90,000 guns in the country - in a country with just over 300,000 people.

The country ranks 15th in the world in terms of legal per capita gun ownership. However, acquiring a gun is not an easy process - steps to gun ownership include a medical examination and a written test.

Police are unarmed, too. The only officers permitted to carry firearms are on a special force called the Viking Squad, and they are seldom called out.

In addition, there are, comparatively speaking, few hard drugs in Iceland.

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