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Guns, not violence, part of life in Iceland

Icelandic police shot dead a man who refused to stop firing at them with a shotgun in the capital of Reykjavik on Monday – and then they apologized. It was the first time that anyone in the country was killed by police gunfire.

“The police regret this incident and wishes to extend its condolences to the man’s family,” said national police chief Haraldur Johannessen.

Details of the event have yet to emerge, but this much is clear: Iceland is a weird place. 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?

St. Louis happens to have about the same population as Iceland. Last year, the city’s police chief ordered a study of incidents in which officers shot at suspects. As reported by the St. Louis Post Dispatch, that happened 98 times in the 2008-2011 period, and 12 of the people shot at died.

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 United States has almost 90 guns per 100 people, compared with 30 per 100 in Iceland, but if that were the key difference, you would expect a narrower difference in police shootings.

One factor may be that only SWAT teams of the kind called in for Monday’s shooting are allowed to carry guns; the rest of the police don’t. So the average officer – let alone a neighborhood watch character such as Florida’s George Zimmerman – can’t shoot anyone because they aren’t armed.

And one reason they don’t need to be armed is that the homicide rate in Iceland is so low – on average, fewer than 0.3 per 100,000 of population, compared with 5 per 100,000 in the U.S. In 2009, according to the Global Study on Homicide, just one person was murdered in Iceland.

In an article for the BBC, law student Andrew Clark found that Icelanders happily pick up strangers in their cars and leave their babies unattended in the street. To a Londoner, New Yorker or Bostonian, that’s unheard of.

He concluded that the biggest reason for Iceland’s low violent-crime rate was social equality. Rich and poor go to the same schools, while 1.1 percent say they are upper class, 1.5 percent lower class – and the rest in between. So there’s less resentment and anger.

Also, although there are a lot of guns in Iceland (Icelanders like to hunt), buying one requires stringent checks, including a medical exam and a written test. That may prevent people from buying and using guns in a fit of anger. It might also explain why very few of Iceland’s very few homicides involve guns.

There are other possible factors, of course. For example, Icelanders have very low rates of drug abuse. It isn’t clear why, but as soon as there was a sniff of a problem in 1973, the government established special police units and courts to tackle it. I’m guessing they had very little else to do.

Marc Champion is a Bloomberg View editorial board member.

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