The news: Police in Iceland have shot and killed a man for the first time in the nation’s history. Following failed attempts by police to subdue him with tear gas, the 59-year-old man was shot after firing his own shotgun at police, which injured two special forces officers.
Icelandic police chief Haraldur Johannessen described the incident as “without precedent,” and offered condolences to the man’s family. Violence is so rare in Iceland, in fact, that counseling is being provided to neighbors in the area of the shooting.
The backstory: In a population of over 300,000, Iceland had one homicide in 2009. Between 1999 and 2009, the homicide rate peaked at 1.8 per 100,000 people. In comparison, the U.S. homicide rate reached 5.8 during that time frame.
It’s not as if Iceland is without guns, however. There is an estimated 90,000 firearms among Iceland’s population of 320,000. The only police in Iceland allowed to carry guns are members of the special forces, known as the Viking Squad.
Why this matters: So how does Iceland get away with such low rates of crime? Why did this story of police shooting an armed suspect make international headlines?
It’s a cop-out if I say it comes down to culture, but I’m going to anyway. Iceland’s egalitarian culture plays a substantial role in its low crime rate.
97% of Icelandic citizens describe themselves as a member of the middle or working class, while less than 2% each identify as a member of the upper or lower classes. A BBC article on Iceland’s lack of violence describes class tensions as “non-existent.”
Iceland’s gun culture, too, plays a role. Though guns are prevalent in Iceland, there is a national database to track gun ownership and sales. Semi-automatic weapons are banned, and handguns make up a very small percentage of firearms.
In 2009, there were only four gun-related deaths recorded in Iceland. And this recent shooting is the first time ever police have killed someone. Compare that with the United States, where police killed nearly 400 people in 2007 alone.
Whatever Iceland is doing to curb violent crime, it’s working. When your first-ever police slaying makes international news, it’s clear you’re doing something right.