Hold Your Fire
Words by Magnús Sveinn Helgason
Photography by Golli
With relatively widespread gun ownership but virtually no gun crime, foreign observers have frequently held up Iceland as an example of sensible gun control. While legislation is an effective tool to minimise gun violence, it’s not the only reason Icelanders manage their guns responsibly. In order to understand how Iceland’s gun legislation works, we need to take a closer look at the country’s gun culture.
Guns play a very different role in Icelandic society and culture than they do in the US, Atli Helgi Atlason, an avid hunter who has lived in the US for 20 years, tells me. “Gun ownership is a privilege in Iceland, rather than a right.”
As Helgi Gunnlaugsson, professor of criminology at the University of Iceland, points out, gun crime is almost unheard of in Iceland. “There are very few armed robberies in general, and it is very rare to see guns used in crimes, certainly homicides. Iceland really stands out in international comparison when it comes to gun crime.”
Icelandic law places strict limits on gun ownership. To get a gun, you must be at least 20 years old, pass a mental and physical assessment, and you can’t have a criminal record. Applicants must then get recommendations from two people to attend a course on guns, gun safety, and gun and hunting laws. Only after passing a written test can you get a license for smaller shotguns and rifles. To get a permit for larger rifles and semi-automatic shotguns, you must wait an additional year.
“The legislation is much stricter than for example in the US,” Helgi points out. “But it’s not prohibitive or exceedingly restrictive. It is very difficult to get a permit for a handgun, but it’s relatively straightforward for most law-abiding people to get a gun permit, which is reflected in the high ratio of gun ownership.” The law, however, ensures that guns do not fall into the wrong hands and promotes responsible gun ownership.
Sergeant Jónas Hafsteinsson has issued gun permits for the Reykjavík Police since 1986. He has reviewed the vast majority of applications in Iceland for nearly a quarter century. “I can only think of one recent case where I had to turn down an application. People either know whether they meet the conditions, or they come in and talk to me to make sure.” It’s also rare for the police to revoke licenses. Only 60 gun permits have been revoked since 2000, primarily due to sentences for possession of controlled substances. Most of these permit holders didn’t own guns, according to Jónas.
While Icelandic gun ownership is relatively high, Jónas tells me that data on gun ownership which are frequently cited are exaggerated. Many articles claim that there are as many as 90,000 firearms in Iceland, but the actual figure is closer to 65,000 guns, which includes guns which have been deactivated, as well as guns brought into Iceland by hunters on their way to Jan Mayen or Greenland. These weapons must be registered once they enter the country and remain on register even though they have left. The figures also include more than 7,000 old single-shot shotguns and “sheep guns,” single-shot handguns used on farms around the country. Still, the figure is quite high for a country of just 350,000 people. The rest of the guns fall into three main categories – collectors’ weapons, guns used for marksmanship, and hunting weapons. The vast majority are hunting weapons: 39,255 shotguns and 25,360 rifles.
The official figures are probably not far off the mark because very few smuggled and unregistered weapons seem to be in circulation in Iceland. “Officers rarely come across unregistered weapons during searches or in connection to criminal investigations. The overwhelming majority of guns seized in this manner, are registered weapons that have been stolen.” Unregistered weapons do turn up regularly, Jónas continues, “but these are usually shotguns bought by grandpa at the local store decades ago.”
It was not always the case that there were few unregistered firearms in Iceland. In 1968, two unregistered firearms turned up in two separate murders which sent shockwaves through Icelandic society. Following the second murder, when a manager at Icelandair was shot by a recently fired pilot, gun regulations were tightened, and a massive recall of unregistered and illegal firearms was initiated. Full clemency was offered to anyone who turned in or registered unregistered firearms. Some 450 handguns were turned in to the police as well as seven submachine guns, while hundreds of previously unregistered rifles and shotguns were registered.
Strict legislation is only one part of the reason Iceland has so little gun crime. Helgi tells me, “Icelanders do not view guns as weapons. The thought of needing a gun to protect yourself or your home from attackers or thieves is completely alien to Icelanders,” he argues. The law does not recognise weapons as part of home or personal defence. Guns must be kept locked away and ammo stored separately. This also minimises or even eliminates the likelihood of guns being used in arguments or domestic disputes.
Helgi stresses that Iceland, like other European countries, has nothing similar to the Second Amendment of the US Constitution. “Guns play a very different role in Icelandic society and culture than they do in the US.”
If this idea sounds foreign, it’s important to remember that guns have never played any significant role in Icelandic history. Iceland has never had an army and never gone to war with a foreign adversary. This peaceful history is reflected in the fact that policemen are unarmed. In emergencies, the police force can dispatch armed special forces units known as “The Viking Squad,” but officers do not carry guns in their daily operations. Recently, some policemen have called for a change in the law to allow officers to carry weapons to meet what many fear is the growing presence of firearms in the Reykjavík underworld, but polls show that Icelanders overwhelmingly oppose this idea.
It’s impossible to speak of Icelandic gun culture without talking about hunting. “Guns are tools for hunting,” Atli Bergmann tells me. Atli has been a fly fisherman since he was 20 and began hunting some 15 years ago. Hunting is a way to enjoy the great outdoors, while also providing Christmas dinner, Atli tells me.
For many Icelanders, Christmas Eve is not complete without roasted ptarmigan, and each fall, Atli goes hunting to catch enough for himself and his extended family. While ptarmigan and geese hunting are most popular in the country, Icelanders also hunt ducks, various seabirds, reindeer, arctic foxes, and seals. Sustainability is extremely important to Icelandic hunters and shooting only as much as you can eat yourself is an important rule for many. “If I get two ptarmigan, I’m satisfied,” Kolbeinn Óttarsson Proppé, an MP for the Left-Green Movement, tells me. “That’s more than enough for myself.”
Hunting ptarmigan requires hours of hiking over heaths, up and down mountains, looking for signs of life, often with no success. “But even when I spend the entire day walking, without seeing a single bird, I’m still deeply happy,” Kolbeinn tells me. “It is really all about being outdoors, in touch with nature. The catch is secondary for me.”
The difference between Icelandic and American gun culture is striking. Atli Helgi tells me he experienced a culture shock when he arrived in the US. “Guns play a completely outsized role in American culture. I would even go so far to say that the US doesn’t have a gun culture, it has the absence of a gun culture. People walking around armed in public. I can’t understand that.”
His experience in the US left him with a more sober view of guns. “As you mature, you grow out of the childish fascination with guns and learn to respect guns for what they are, dangerous tools and hunting weapons.”
This article is an excerpt. Read the full article in the latest issue of Iceland Review Magazine. Subscribe here to get the magazine delivered to your door.
Iceland Review is the longest-running English-language magazine presenting Iceland’s community, culture, and nature – since 1963.