An averted terrorist plot and recent shootings in Reykjavík put guns in Iceland in the spotlight, sparking conversations about whether the Nordic nation should tighten its gun laws and give more leeway to police investigating crimes.
Iceland is renowned for its safe society, regularly topping lists as one of the most peaceful countries in the world.
While gun violence is rare, an alleged terrorist plot and three recent shootings shocked Icelanders.
On 21 September, four Icelandic men were arrested in Reykjavík, alleged to have engaged in producing 3D-printed weapons and to have conspired to use these weapons against unnamed government offices.
In raids last month, police seized dozens of firearms and thousands of rounds of ammunition. Two men are currently in police custody, and two have been released.
The recent headlines have sent shockwaves through Iceland.
“When the news came out about the alleged terrorist plot, you could feel the alarm in society,” said Helgi Gunnlaugsson, professor of criminology at the University of Iceland.
“It came out of the blue; we don’t have these types of problems in Iceland.”
Last month’s terror plot arrests come on the heels of a shooting in Blönduós in north Iceland in August that left two people dead and one person injured and two other shootings in February.
It comes amid a surge in the number of semi-automatic weapons being imported into Iceland. Police figures show there were 252 such firearms imported in 2020, up from 19 the year before, two in 2018 and none during the previous two years.
High gun ownership in Iceland
While Iceland is known for its peacefulness, gun ownership is surprisingly high in Iceland.
There are an estimated 106,000 guns held by civilians in Iceland -- about one for every three people -- and most of the weapons are rifles and shotguns rather than handguns, according to figures compiled by the Gunpolicy.org database at the University of Sydney.
Armed crime is rare and the country has strict gun laws: there have only been 52 gun deaths in the last decade that statistics are available, and 50 of them were suicides.
“You have to know that gun ownership is high in Iceland, but the culture behind it is linked to hunting or collectors,” said Professor Gunnlaugsson.
“For farming communities, they have access to shotguns, and it’s been a part of Icelandic society to have guns. It’s foreign to Icelanders to have a gun to protect yourself or to point to someone else. It’s an alien idea; not part of the Icelandic mentality, which makes the recent news so shocking," she told Euronews.
Buying a gun is not an easy process either, as Icelandic law places strict limits on gun ownership.
To obtain a licence for a firearm, applicants must be at least 20 years old, pass a medical assessment to ensure they are mentally and physically fit to handle a gun and have a clean criminal record.
Applicants must get recommendations from two people to attend a course on firearms, gun safety, and gun and hunting laws.
“You send a request to the police, and if you pass the requirements, you have to attend a seminar, participating in two lectures, a written exam and a 'hands-on day' with a local gun club,” said Þórarinn Þórarinsson, a police officer in Reykjavík.
“If you pass this, you get your 'A' permit, allowing you to buy .22 cal rifles and shotguns. After one year, you can apply for the 'B' permit - big rifles and semi-auto shotguns,” he said.
Government wants to tighten gun laws even more
Despite the strict laws, Minister of Justice Jón Gunnarsson has expressed a desire to strengthen gun laws further. He will submit a proposal of changes to the law to parliament this autumn.
“Like I have repeatedly said this year, we are reconsidering the whole legal framework for getting a gun licence,” he told the Icelandic newspaper Morgunblðið recently.
“On the whole, the law is quite strict, and it is not an easy process getting a gun licence compared to the countries around us. But we are going over these things, and this is on my agenda as a proposal for the fall, to change the legal framework.”
Some gun owners are not opposed to further restrictions.
“In my opinion, I think it is okay to strengthen some laws and loosen others,” said Sigurður Ingi Jónsson, from the Skotíþróttafélag Kópavogs shooting club.
“I am all for outright banning attack rifles that are allowed under the collector’s licence, but I also feel like owning an air pistol should not have the same licence as owning a .38 special or 9mm pistol.”
Arming the police is another potential area of change.
Icelandic police officers are currently unarmed when patrolling, and the special forces must be called out if needed as they are permitted to carry firearms.
However, minister Gunnarsson has not clarified whether arming regular Icelandic police officers is on the cards.
“It is vitally important to make sure our police officers are safe so they can be the guards of the safety of the residents. We are looking at this in my ministry, and I will make a firm decision on the matter,” he said.
Officials say there is a consensus among police authorities that the gun laws need amendment, and this work is underway at the ministry of justice.
“Many police forces in Europe are armed on duty,” said Criminology Professor Helgi Gunnlaugsson.
“The Icelandic police force is not, but that could change overnight. We will have to see what comes out of the investigation of the alleged terrorism plot, and there might be more of a desire to change the law.”