The small North Atlantic island nation of Iceland has recorded what is believed to be its first fatal police shooting of a civilian. The BBC reported that police killed a 59-year-old man who was firing his shotgun out of his apartment in Árbær, a suburb east of Reykjavik, early Monday. The Iceland Review reported that the man had made various threats to his neighbors.
Police evacuated the other residents of the apartment complex for their safety and fired tear gas canisters through the windows of the shooter’s flat in an attempt to subdue him. When this tactic failed, a team of up to 20 officers entered the building, leading to the fatal shooting. They were reportedly backed up by members of the country’s Special Forces, two of whom were injured in the episode. The gunman was taken to a hospital, where he died.
The police have yet to find a motive for the unidentified man’s shooting spree. "Police regret this incident and would like to extend their condolences to the family of the man," National Police Commissioner Haraldur Johannessen told reporters. He added that the incident was “unprecedented” in the country’s history. The government’s state prosecutor will investigate police conduct in the deadly operation.
With a population of about 325,000, Iceland has one of the lowest crime rates in the world, including a near absence of gun violence. But, intriguingly, Icelanders are heavily armed. According to reports, some 90,000 Icelanders – more than one-quarter of the country’s population -- own guns (including, of course, the man who was just killed by police). On a per capita basis, Iceland ranks 15th on the global list of gun ownership rates.
But violent crime is virtually nonexistent in this land of Viking descendants, volcanoes and geysers. In 2009, for example, only four gun-related deaths were recorded, including one suicide and one accidental shooting. This could possibly be attributed to strict gun control laws in Iceland -- a national database registers and tracks all guns, and all gun buyers must be licensed by the state to possess firearms.
The Reykjavik Grapevine newspaper noted that the vast majority of weapons in Iceland consist of shotguns and hunting rifles, with very few handguns. Elvar Árni Lund, chairman of the Hunting Association of Iceland, told Iceland Review: “Semi-automatic rifles are banned and handgun ownership is fortunately low, mostly in connection with sharpshooting. Gun ownership in Iceland is mostly for the purpose of hunting and practicing sport.” Regarding the high rate of gun ownership in the island, Lund added: “It shows that we are on the same level as other nations in the Northern Hemisphere. It is in our culture to hunt wild animals.”
Reykjavik Mayor Jón Gnarr is a noted pacifist who has criticized the ceaseless gun violence in the United States.
Gnarr’s anti-violence stance extends into other spheres as well -- for example, he has called for the banning of all military ships from the capital's harbor, and all military airplanes are prohibited from the local airport as part of the mayor's efforts to make the capital a "city of peace" and a "military-free zone.”
Gnarr also wants Iceland -- which has no standing army –-- to quit NATO. "A peaceful and responsible city administration cannot be pleased with an unchanged situation at Reykjavík airport,” he declared in 2010. “The city government asks that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs focus on seeing to it that all military traffic to and from the airport be stopped. Icelanders live by a centuries-old tradition of peace. The nation is peaceful, without an army, and strives to support peace in the world."