Viewpoint

Police officers without guns

Police snipers in Denmark take position while protecting a Jewish funeral.
Police snipers in Denmark take position while protecting a Jewish funeral. AFP/GETTY

In the United States, it seems obvious that police officers carry guns and are allowed to use them.

In other places, however, this would be considered a provocation and a violation of law.

In Britain, Ireland, Norway, Iceland and New Zealand, officers are unarmed on patrol. Police are only equipped with firearms in special circumstances. It’s a strategy that seems to work surprisingly well for these countries. 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 U.S. grapples with its own debates over gun control and better policing, these five nations could teach some crucial lessons.

Iceland

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 cops 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 purposes, 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, homogenous, egalitarian and tightly knit society,” sociologist Oddsson said.

Both Oddsson and Richard Wright, a criminology professor at Georgia State University, agree that low inequality and a strong welfare system have also contributed to Iceland’s success in sustaining its unarmed police.

Ireland

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 U.N.-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.

Great Britain

In Britain, 82 percent of the police do not want to be armed.

The practice of walking unarmed patrols is a 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 U.S. police in 2013, according to the FBI, 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.

New Zealand

In New Zealand, a professor argued that it’s more dangerous to be a farmer than an unarmed police officer.

In an essay, Auckland Technical University Senior Criminology Lecturer John Buttle calculated that “In New Zealand, it is more dangerous being a farmer than it is a police officer,” he wrote in a paper published 2010.

“Only a dozen or so senior police officers nationwide are rostered to wear a handgun on any given shift,” Philip Alpers, Associate Professor at the Sydney School of Public Health, told The Washington Post.

Norway

Norway has stuck to the tradition – despite a shock in 2011.

That year, Norway suffered through a tragedy that exposed the dangers of unarmed law enforcement authorities. 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.

Most experts agree, however, that it would be counterproductive to suddenly disarm U.S. 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,” Oddsson said.

Noack writes about foreign affairs. He is an Arthur F. Burns Fellow at The Washington Post.

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