What If Gun Laws Aren't the Solution?

As Norway marks four years after the Utøya massacre, the country might have a few lessons to teach. Especially to the US.

As Norway marks four years after the Utøya massacre, the country might have a few lessons to teach. Especially to the US.

Picture a 12-year old riding the bus alone across town. With a rifle on his back. Imagine the commotion had it happened in the US.

Instead it happened in Norway. Two times a week, all through high school. The kid was me. On my way to biathlon training.

The national sport of biathlon is in itself probably the best illustration of Norway's relaxed attitude towards guns. Could the sport of skiing and shooting ever find an American equivalent of skateboarding interrupted by target shooting? Hardly.

It's no secret that the US has one of the highest densities of weapons in the world. Fewer people know that the small, socially liberal country of Norway ranks very close.

On a global level, private gun ownership in Norway is high. 31.32 firearms per 100 people. Still a lot less than the US with 88.82 firearms per 100 people ("Small Arms Survey 2007: Guns and the City," Cambridge University Press), however, Americans are in a league of their own in this field.

Add the fact that 75% of Norwegians are members of the protestant church, and you can safely say that we "cling to guns or religion", as Obama once said. So, how did these nature-loving tree huggers also become gun huggers?

When the Vikings stopped pillaging neighbouring villages, weapon in hand, they remained hunters, continuing to harvest the forest-covered country. And with a history of Nazi occupation, well-armed military reserves at least create an illusion of heightened resistance. Although the Germans no longer scare us outside of the football field, we do share a border with a certain bear wrestling, bareback riding, bare-chested president.

Gun ownership is common. But gun violence is not. Norway has one of the lowest per-capita homicide rates in Europe. It is not a given that a country has to rank high in both categories. So how is this possible?

Up until July 22, 2011, Norwegians were not known to use their guns to kill each other. That's not to say there weren't killings. Let's just say that a high gun density often implies that people who decide to end their own lives have a higher rate of success.

Then the Utøya massacre happened. Norwegian-born and -raised, blond and blue-eyed - "one of us" - Anders Behring Breivik chose to aim his rage towards national immigration policies at a Labor Party youth camp. 69 young people died. Eight others were killed when the same person set off a bomb by a building housing several ministries, including the Prime Minister's Office.

Finally, this open and trusting little society was up for some serious law reforms, right? Surely, one needed to make sure that another insane person, or rather someone with insane political ideas (the court-appointed psychologists were divided on the issue), couldn't get their hands on weapons?

No. Then Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg was quick to phrase that the terror would be met with "more openness and more democracy." Future will tell if the now Secretary General of NATO will attempt to implement such a strategy at that organisation.

Political Norway was intent on one thing: Not letting this frightening, but still singular, incident change society's structures. Instead of more rules and restrictions, the government applied even more of the original medicine: faith in social trust. Perhaps even more interesting, a year later, scientists found that social trust had actually grown.

Seriously, not one adjustment to gun restrictions? Actually, there was one notable change. For the first time in history (outside of the Second World War) Norwegian police were allowed to carry a gun.

But, and this but is big, the change came only half a year ago and was not linked to the Utøya shootings. The background was the very same ISIS threat that every other Western country is scaring itself with these days. Yes, Norway is no better than the rest when it comes to loosing its cool when the threat is not "one of us", but has darker eyes and hair and belongs to a different religion.

Also, the permission for the police to carry guns has now been revoked. Mostly because the government weren't able to describe the threat in a credible way. Parliament was not satisfied with the threat description of "someone, somewhere, sometime - maybe".

Today, one can still park a van next to the parliament building. Politicians and royalty are easily approachable. Surveillance has been tightened, but nowhere close to American measures or those suggested by EU's now-debunked Data Protection Directive.

Less judgemental political dialogue was immediately encouraged. People with similar ideas about restricting immigration were not to be assorted guilt by association.

The killer had some years earlier been involved in party politics within a local branch of the right wing Progressive Party. Very few have held this against the party, underlined by the fact that they now for the first time are in government.

In his famous play "Peer Gynt", Norwegian Henrik Ibsen wrote that trolls burst when exposed to the sun. The same is often said in Norway about net trolls. Is is true? Can xenophobic people shed their extreme political views through online deliberation?

Not necessarily, most Norwegians still shed more of their fair skin than their unfair politics under solar exposure. But it doesn't mean the extreme views translate to extreme actions. Such views are perhaps more tolerated, although still not acknowledged.

The Utøya terrorist got his guns and bomb-making fertilizer according to rules and regulations. His record was clean. Four years later, it is still difficult to make the case that stricter laws could have prevented the attacks. There has been no call for "strong leaders".

Emphasis has been placed elsewhere. The government has strengthened psychiatric health care, which together with physical health care, is offered free. A high level of social trust makes it easier to maintain collective dialogue and coordinated action.

Guns don't kill people. People kill people. Although people with guns kill people, people with guns also don't kill people. In any case, one can't escape the fact that somebody is pulling the trigger and it's not the guns. Ultimately, it's with the people you have to put the effort.

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