A Norwegian take on the gun laws debate
Dobbs Ferry, NY
The United States is in the middle of an election, and the political distance between the two parties has never been bigger. In the midst of budget deficits, congressional gridlocks, and comprehensive healthcare bills, we see a gun law debate that is approaching a critical point. This topic keeps on making headlines, and it is getting somewhat old.
According to the Swiss Small Arms Survey, the United States ranks as the number one country in gun ownership with 88.8 guns per 100 residents. Now, this makes sense, both because of the infamous Second Amendment, but also because of the cultural and historical role guns have in America.
Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and a study on the relationship between gun ownership and firearm homicide rates, show that states with more guns have more deaths. However, the country that follows only 10 places behind the U.S. in gun density had only four killings by guns in 2015. Norway, with a population of only about five million people, has roughly 1.3 million guns (around 500,000 registered gun owners; this equals about 26 guns per 100 residents), yet only a tiny fraction of the killings in Norway are committed with guns.
A reasonable explanation for this difference would be the size of the population. At least that is what some gun supporters argue, but it is simply not true. In Japan, which has a population of about 127 million people, the estimated total number of guns (both licit and illicit) held by civilians is 710,000 (less than one gun per 100 residents), but they also have very strict gun laws and the rate of homicides by firearm was 0.01 per 100,000 people in 2013. In the UK the numbers are also low, as steps have been taken to reduce gun violence. The total number of guns (both licit and illicit) held by civilians is estimated to be 4,060,000. With a total population of about 56 million people (which makes the number of guns per 100 residents 7.25), England and Wales have one gun homicide for every 1 million people. In comparison, there were 8,124 gun homicides in the U.S. in 2014, which has six times the population of England and Wales.
If not population, could the difference possibly be the gun laws? Former presidential candidate Cruz said at one point that “the jurisdictions with the strictest gun control laws, almost without exception … have the highest crime rates and the highest murder rates.” He was of course referring to areas in the United States, but it turns out that the statistics in the U.S. are not clear enough on this either way, and that it is in fact just too difficult to determine based on only the regulations. However, if we turn back to Norway again, we might find a clearer answer.
Although the small Norwegian population is famous for their peacefulness, which includes low crime rates, high living standards, and awarding the Nobel Peace Prize every year, guns have traditionally been important for this little country. Due to the short growing season in Norway, agriculture has always been limited and hunting was an important alternative food source. Because it is so peaceful today you might also imagine that Norway has not gone through the same violent history that America has, but this is not true. Norway was used as a tossing ball between Denmark and Sweden for centuries, eventually given to Sweden as spoils of war. Over the 500 years of occupation, Norway was involved in several wars, including a massive Swedish invasion, which led to a huge area being annexed by Sweden.
Consider the gun cultures in Norway and the United States. Many gun owners in both countries use rifles for hunting. Yet statistics from the FBI show that most gun homicides are committed with handguns, and not rifles, and among the 300 million guns owned by civilians, about 114 million of these are handguns. Is banning handguns a place to start, then?
In the United States, there are places where you can walk into a gun shop and buy a gun and ammunition, almost without any restrictions. The New York Times wrote, in June this year, about how the majority of guns used in 16 recent mass shootings were acquired legally. Even though several of the shooters had criminal history and documented mental history, they were allowed to buy these weapons despite federal background checks.
If we look back at Norway, you are not allowed to buy a gun without written permission from the police, which you can acquire by filling out a gun ownership application. As a part of this process, you have to state the purpose of the acquisition, and it has to be reasonable to the police. The police will also do a background check to decide whether or not you are trustworthy of being in possession of a gun. You will also need permission from the police to buy ammunition, and all guns and ammunition have to be locked away in an approved locker.
Many Americans are killed every year in massacres or other kinds of gun violence. Between January 1, 2013 and June 13, 2016, which totals 1,260 days, there have been 1,000 mass shootings (defined liberally as a shooting in which four or more people are injured by gunfire). However, the number one cause of death by guns is suicide. Killings come as number two, and third is accidents and police shootings, of which the latter, in 2013, accounted for 1,253 deaths. A change in gun regulations could reduce the number of guns on the streets, in addition to reducing the number of suicides, killings, and accidents. It could also reduce the danger to police officers’ lives when on duty, which in turn could reduce the number of police shootings.
One thing is obvious—something needs to change. The United States controls almost half of the civilian-owned guns in the entire world, and you do not need an automatic weapon as “protection.” We cannot ignore the fact that more guns create more tension. Thus, the American people should use their opportunity in the presidential and congressional elections to take a stand in the gun debate for the last time, and end these unnecessary deaths.
Petter Wilhelmsen lives in Rosendal, Norway, and studies at Mercy College, New York, with a major in Entrepreneurship. He currently works as a Norwegian to English translator, and his interests include politics, computer games, sports, and guitar.
This article originally appeared in the Oct. 7, 2016, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.
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