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Iceland is a gun-loving country with no shooting murders since 2007

While the remote island is the size of Kentucky and has a population similar to St. Louis, Missouri, Icelanders say the U.S. can learn from their gun laws.
by Alexander Smith and Vladimir Banic /  / Updated 

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REYKJAVIK, Iceland — Like many of his countrymen, Olaf Garðar Garðarsson is eager to get his hands on a rifle.

But he can't just walk into a store and buy one. Instead, he is sitting through a mandatory four-hour lecture on the history and physics of the firearm.

This is Iceland — the gun-loving nation that hasn't experienced a gun-related murder since 2007.

"For us, it would be really strange if you could get a license to buy a gun and you had no idea how to handle it," says Garðarsson, 28, a mechanical engineer. "I would find it very odd if [a gun owner] had never even learned which is the pointy end and which is the trigger end."

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Image: Iceland Gun Tests
Olaf Garðar Garðarsson learns how to fire a gun at a range outside Reykjavik earlier this month.Anton Brink Hansen / for NBC News

Iceland is a sparsely populated island in the northern Atlantic. Its tiny population of some 330,000 live on a landmass around the size of Kentucky.

St. Louis, Missouri, which has a population slightly smaller than Iceland's, had 193 homicides linked to firearms last year.

Icelanders believe the rigorous gun laws on this small, remote volcanic rock can offer lessons to the United States.

"The system here works," said Gunnar Rúnar Sveinbjörnsson, a flip-flop-wearing spokesman for Reykjavik's police department. "We would be glad to help."

Like many outside the U.S., Sveinbjörnsson struggles to comprehend the extent of American gun violence.

"It's just madness," he says. "We just cannot understand why this isn't stopped and why something isn't being done."

No other country in the developed world comes close to the U.S. when it comes to gun ownership, gun homicides, mass shootings and police killings.

After the February mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, the "Enough is Enough" movement led to laws tightening gun restrictions in the state, including raising the legal age to buy a gun to 21. But that has not been repeated in other states nor on a national level.

In many places in the U.S., it's still possible to buy a semi-automatic rifle in minutes with only patchy background checks.

Image: Iceland Gun Tests
Anyone who wants to own and fire a gun in Iceland must first be tested at a range like this one.Anton Brink Hansen / for NBC News

Gun control advocates in the U.S. sometimes point to countries such as Japan, where strict laws and a pacifist culture mean there are very few guns, and as a result very few gun deaths.

But guns are everywhere in Iceland, about one for every three people, and many here are staunch advocates of their right to own a firearm.

"There's nothing wrong with the gun," said Jóhann Vilhjálmsson, a gunsmith in Reykjavik, echoing a favorite argument of the National Rifle Association. "The gun kills nothing, you know? It's the person who is holding onto the gun."

The last gun killing here was 11 years ago, and there have only been four in the past two decades, according to GunPolicy.org, a project run by Australia's University of Sydney.

It would be misleading to suggest that the model in Iceland — a small country where income inequality is low — could be seamlessly transposed onto the U.S.

Most guns here are used for hunting or competitive shooting. Crime of any nature is so infrequent that few if anyone argues that they need to own a weapon for self-defense.

"The system in the U.S. is so different to the one we have here," says Sveinbjörnsson, the police spokesman.

Image: Iceland Gun Tests
An instructor discusses gun safety at a firing range. Anton Brink Hansen / for NBC News

But what's clear is how seriously all Icelanders take the responsibility that comes with owning a deadly weapon.

That's why Garðarsson, the mechanical engineer and hopeful gun-owner, is currently sitting in a Reykjavik hotel conference room learning about the ins and outs of his weapon of choice.

He came here with his girlfriend, Jóhanna Einarsdóttir, 26, a teacher who also wants a gun. There are about three dozen others in attendance, all listening intently to the seminar covering firearm history, physics, laws, hunting and safety.

This is only one step in a meticulously regulated journey.

Candidates are examined by a doctor who checks they are in good physical and mental health.

They have a meeting with the chief of police, who asks them why they want to own a gun and runs a background check to make sure they have no criminal record.

Image: Iceland Gun Tests
Olaf Garðar Garðarsson practices his aim.Anton Brink Hansen / for NBC News

Then comes the lecture, followed by a written test the next day that they have to pass with a grade of 75 percent or higher.

The final part is a day-long practice session at a shooting range outside the capital. Here, against the backdrop of snow-capped mountains, they blast at bright-orange targets fired into the sky by a machine.

"It feels like somebody cares that you're getting a gun and what you're going to do with the gun," Garðarsson says at his apartment on the outskirts of Reykjavik. "So you're not going to buy a gun to do stupid things."

If they pass, he and his girlfriend will have been studying and preparing for around 13 months.

And that's just for a small rifle or a pump-action shotgun. Owning a handgun, for example, can take around three to four years, and semi-automatic rifles are all but banned.

Image: Iceland Gun Tests
The last shooting murder in Iceland occurred in 2007.Anton Brink Hansen / for NBC News

Garðarsson hopes to finish the tests and start practicing his aim in time for winter.

"In my girlfriend's family, there's a tradition to eat ptarmigan for Christmas ," he says, referring to the small bird native to northern Europe, Canada and Alaska. "Now, finally, we can be the ones that bring the bird to the table."

Iceland's modern peace contrasts with the violent past of this land of fire and ice.

It sits on the shifting boundary between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates, formed by spewing lava and carved by colossal glaciers.

It was first settled by Norwegian Viking outlaws in the 9th century, but plagues, volcanic eruptions and inhospitable weather meant it has remained one of the most sparsely populated countries on earth.

And like many countries in Europe, most police here are unarmed.

Only specialist units, like the Viking Squad, Iceland's version of a SWAT team, can carry guns and even then, they are kept in locked boxes that require senior approval to open.

Since the Icelandic police was established in 1803, its officers have only shot and killed one person. This was in 2013, and afterward the police chief, Haraldur Johannessen, said he was "deeply saddened" and apologized to the victim's family.

Image: Iceland Gun Tests
The gun safety and shooting course is held at a test center outside Reykjavik.Anton Brink Hansen / for NBC News

Iceland is part of NATO but has no standing army. From this perspective, the idea of allowing ordinary people to buy military-grade weapons such as the infamous AR-15 seems "crazy, absolutely crazy," according to Icelandic lawyer Ívar Pálsson.

"When you have an automatic gun in your home, anybody can access it, your children or anyone else," he says.

Pálsson is responsible for giving one of the lectures that leads up to the gun exam. Vilhjálmsson, the city gunsmith, gives another, as well as the tests at the shooting range. The entire process is administered by the Environment Agency of Iceland.

Like his fellow classmates, Garðarsson now has to wait to see if he has passed. If not, it might be annoying to hit the books again but he believes Iceland should never consider adopting a more American-style regime.

"That people can go into a store and buy a gun, it's ridiculous for me," he says. "If something snaps in his head then he's able to do it in just one hour — go to a store, buy a gun, go to a guy he's angry at and shoot him."

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