Iceland’s loss of innocence by Quentin Bates

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Last week police shot dead a man in a short gunfight, the first time that this has happened in this peaceful little country. So far there are few details, other than the short accounts that the media has carried. It seems that police were called to an apartment in Reykjavík to respond a disturbance in the middle of the night. Uniformed officers quickly decided that this was a job for the Special Unit.

Attempts to approach the man in the apartment were unsuccessful, and shots were fired, with two officers hit but not seriously injured. The police tried to use gas grenades to incapacitate him, after which the man began firing out of the window. There appears to have been an exchange of shots inside the building, during which the man was hit.

That’s it. There’s not a lot of information to go on, except that the man was injured in a gunfight with police officers and subsequently died of his injuries in hospital.

It’s not the first time this has happened. People have waved shotguns around before now, but this is the first time it has resulted in someone’s death. It’s something that both the Icelandic people and the police force are going to have to come to terms with. There’s going to be a huge amount of investigation and the officers involved are going to have to account for every second of their time at the scene as the whole incident is publicly scrutinised.

You could say that it was inevitable. Sooner or later someone would run amok with a firearm and do some real damage. There’s no shortage of guns in Iceland. Plenty of people shoot for the table, mostly geese and ptarmigan, and elusive pests such as mink are shot as soon as a farmer can draw a bead on one. Incidentally, mink are voracious little predators and are the descendants of those that escaped from fur farms. They’re not native to Iceland, although they’ve made themselves very much at home there and are an unmitigated pest, as anyone who keeps chickens will tell you.

It does make you wonder why gun crime in Iceland is so rare, considering how many guns there are in circulation. Countries such as Norway and Switzerland, where people do their military service and take their weapons home with them, also have limited gun crime in comparison to the number of weapons in circulation, so what’s the secret to this? I guess it’s that having a weapon in your possession is practically unthinkable without the training that goes with it. It’s not as if you can walk into a shop and buy a weapon across the counter, pay in cash and drive away.

Most likely it’s because getting a firearms licence isn’t exactly easy, and most people who shoot for the pot do so from an early age and are taught from the start to have respect for a gun. For most rural Icelanders, a shotgun is a tool, not a toy or a statement.

A rifle is an even tougher proposition and getting a licence for one of those is a process that you’d only go down if you’re very serious, such as for hunting the reindeer that live in parts of eastern Iceland. Handguns are virtually non-existent. We’re back to the idea of a gun as a tool, and a handgun has only one purpose; to kill people. So there are no handguns. Wait a moment, let’s qualify that. There are handguns; a very few held by enthusiasts, the police and the Coastguard – and there’s undoubtedly a number of illegal handguns in circulation and it’s maybe a matter of time before one of those gets used in anger.

In this tiny society, a great deal of sympathy has to lie with the dead man’s family. His name hasn’t been released, but it wouldn’t be hard to find out who he is, and everyone will know someone who knew him or his relatives. His identity will be an open secret and his relatives are the ones who will carry this burden for years to come.

Police officers in Iceland go about their business unarmed except with a stick and a can of pepper spray. Firearms are only brought out by the Special Unit on special occasions, such as this one. There have been announcements and press conferences. The police have apologised for the fact that they had no choice in taking action – after all, someone was letting fly with a firearm in an urban area, which is never a healthy situation. My guess is that a police force anywhere else would have reacted in much the same way, and many would have been a lot quicker off the mark and less hesitant about in calling out the big guns.

Iceland has been in a sombre mood for a few days. People have been struck by this incident and the police force is also in shock as this raises the stakes in a way that isn’t easy to define. In fact, the Icelandic police don’t come out of this badly. They did the right thing and apologised for having to do it. The police are largely trusted – far more than government, Parliament, the judiciary or civil service, all of which are widely believed to be corrupt to a greater or lesser extent. But people will generally trust a police officer to say and do the right thing.

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