Countries Where Cops Do Not Carry Guns Are Much Safer
July 10, 2016
Rick Noack / The Washington Post
It has been another week of devastating gun violence in the US 37-year-old Alton Sterling and 32-year-old Philando Castile were both fatally shot by police officers in separate incidents which sparked outrage across the nation. Gun control is a strategy that seems to work surprisingly well for other countries: In Britain, Ireland, Norway, Iceland and New Zealand, officers are unarmed when they are on patrol. Police are only equipped with firearms in special circumstances.
5 Countries Where Most Police Officers
Do Not Carry Firearms -- and It Works Well
Rick Noack / The Washington Post
LONDON (July 8, 2016) -- It has been another week of devastating gun violence in the United States: 37-year-old Alton Sterling and 32-year-old Philando Castile were both fatally shot by police officers in separate incidents which sparked outrage across the nation.
When protesters rallied against the shootings Thursday night in Dallas, at least one gunman opened fire on 12 officers, killing five of them.
Shortly after the shootings, US and foreign commentators put a renewed spotlight on what they think has been one of the origins of most of the recent violence: gun control laws. But some experts say that a successful disarmament of the United States would have to be more extensive than many believe: Citizens and law enforcement personnel would have to hand over their weapons in the long term to make the US a safer country.
It's a strategy that seems to work surprisingly well for other countries: In Britain, Ireland, Norway, Iceland and New Zealand, officers are unarmed when they are on patrol. Police are only equipped with firearms in special circumstances.
Police officers there have saved lives -- exactly because they were unable to shoot.
"The practice is rooted in tradition and the belief that arming the police with guns engenders more gun violence than it prevents," Guðmundur Oddsson, an assistant professor of sociology at Northern Michigan University, told The Washington Post.
As the US debates gun control and better policing, these five nations could teach some crucial lessons.
In Iceland, one third of all citizens are armed -- but police officers are not most of the time
When police shot a man in Iceland in 2013, it was the first time police had used their firearms and killed a person in the history of this country, according to the Christian Science Monitor. Granted, Iceland is a tiny country with only 300,000 inhabitants.
However, one third of the country's population is armed with rifles and shotguns for hunting, making it the 15th most armed country per capita in the world. Despite this, crime is extremely rare.
Are Icelanders simply more peaceful than Americans? "Iceland's low crime rates are rooted in the country's small, homogeneous, egalitarian and tightly knit society," sociologist Oddsson said.
When asked what struck him most about crime in Iceland, Richard Wright, a criminology professor at Georgia State University, said: "Once, during a presentation, an Icelandic police officer kept referring to 'poor people with problems' -- and it took me a while before I realized that she was talking about offenders. She considered every citizen precious because 'we are so few and there is so much to do,' she said."
Wright also thinks that the powerful standing of women in Iceland's politics, as well as within the police force, has helped to maintain low crime rates. Both Oddsson and Wright agree that low inequality and a strong welfare system have contributed to Iceland's success in sustaining its unarmed police.
Most of Ireland's officers are not even trained in using firearms
Ireland has gone a step further: There, most police officers would not even know how to use a gun if they were threatened. According to the UN-sponsored research site GunPolicy.org, only 20 to 25 percent of Irish police officers are qualified to use firearms. Despite that, Ireland has much lower crime rates than the United States.
In Britain, 82 percent of police do not want to be armed
"Sadly we know from the experience in America and other countries that having armed officers certainly does not mean, sadly, that police officers do not end up getting shot," Greater Manchester Chief Constable Sir Peter Fahy was quoted as saying by British media outlets in 2012, after two of his officers were fatally shot.
The practice of walking unarmed patrols is an established fact of police life everywhere in the U.K. apart from Northern Ireland: Since the 19th century, British officers on patrol have considered themselves to be guardians of citizens, who should be easily approachable. There are far fewer incidents of deadly clashes between police and suspected criminals. While there were 461 “justifiable homicides” committed by US police in 2013, according to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report, there was not a single one in the United Kingdom the same year.
In a 2004 survey, 82 percent of Britain's Police Federation members said that they did not want to be routinely armed on duty, according to the BBC. At least one third of British police officers have feared for their lives while being on duty, but remained opposed to carrying firearms.
In New Zealand, a professor argued that it's more dangerous to be a farmer than an unarmed police officer
Two girls offer tea to police in New Zealand after an earthquake in 2011. (Rob Griffith/AP)
In an essay, Auckland Technical University Senior Criminology Lecturer John Buttle calculated that it is in fact safer for police officers not to carry weapons. "[In New Zealand], it is more dangerous being a farmer than it is a police officer," he wrote in a paper, published 2010. Arming the police would inevitably lead to an arms race with criminals and a spike in casualties.
"Only a dozen or so senior police officers nationwide are rostered to wear a handgun on any given shift," said Philip Alpers, associate professor at the Sydney School of Public Health.
Norway has stuck to the tradition -- despite a shock in 2011
In 2011, Norway suffered through a tragedy which exposed the dangers of unarmed law enforcement authorities. Back then, far-right gunman Anders Behring Breivik attacked a Norwegian summer camp and killed 77 people.
Murders are extremely rare in this Scandinavian country -- but many blamed a delayed and flawed police response for the horrifying carnage Breivik was able to inflict. So far, though, the tradition of unarmed police officers has proven to be stronger than the fear of terrorism.
There are other places, too
Twelve of 16 Pacific island nations, for instance, do not allow police officers to carry weapons. "Their regional bumper sticker now reads: An unarmed society is a polite society," says Alpers of the Sydney School of Public Health.
Most experts agree, however, that it would be counterproductive to suddenly disarm US police officers without addressing the origins of crime.
"Any attempts to roll back the militarization of the American police would need to be accompanied by policies that increase economic and racial equality and legitimate opportunity for advancement for the poor," sociologist Oddsson said.
This post was first published in February 2015. It was updated on July 8, 2016.
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