Why are there so many guns in Finland?

Previously published Slate articles made new.
Dec. 31 2009 11:33 AM

Packing Heat in Helsinki

Why do Finns own so many guns?

A gunman on a shooting spree left six people dead today near Helsinki, Finland. The alleged shooter, 43-year-old Ibrahim Shkupoll, reportedly killed his ex-girlfriend in an apartment then headed to the nearby shopping mall where she worked and opened fire. A man believed to be Shkupoll was later found dead of an apparent suicide. After a 2007 school shooting in Finland left nine people dead, Michelle Tsai asked why Finns had the world's third-highest rate of gun ownership at the time.

An 18-year-old in Finland shot and killed eight people at his school on Wednesday. The killer, Pekka-Eric Auvinen, then committed suicide by turning his .22-caliber gun on himself. Although gun violence is very rare in Finland, the country has the highest rate of firearm ownership in Europe and the third highest in the world, behind only the United States and Yemen. Why do so many Finns own firearms?

They're hunters. The Finns have hunted and fished for food for thousands of years, with agriculture only catching up as a major food source in the 20th century. Today, hunting (PDF) remains a popular weekend, or even after-work, activity. Finland is one of the largest European countries, and there are ample grounds for hunters. (Forests cover more than half of the country.)

According to the Finnish government, the country has 1.6 million registered weapons and 650,000 people with firearm permits. That means about 12 percent of the population owns a weapon of some kind. More than half the permits are for hunting, which is usually done with rifles and shotguns. The rest of the permits are for target practice, which can involve handguns. The student in Wednesday's shooting was a member of the Helsinki Shooting Club, which has 1,500 members. (Other sources cite different gun-ownership rates for Finland; one study (PDF) estimated 41 to 69 privately owned firearms for every 100 civilians.)

Hunting is closely regulated by the Finnish government. A would-be hunter must pass a written test on game biology, legislation, and management before he can purchase a hunting permit. You also must pass a rifle-shooting test and a background check before you can obtain a firearm license. A hunter must also be licensed for the number and type of animals he plans to kill. (The most popular targets include moose, ducks, geese, bears, foxes, and hares.) Teenagers who are at least 15 but younger than 18 can apply for a firearm license as long as they have parental permission. This week's school shooter received his license a few weeks ago.

Finland is more gun-friendly than some other European nations. In September, the country resisted an EU proposal to raise the legal age for arms possession to 18, arguing that restricting hunting for the young would result in "highly emotional and strong reactions in Finland against the EU as a whole." Aside from hunting, guns are also part of Finland's strong military tradition. Young men in Finland tend to be familiar with firearms since almost all of them join the army for compulsory service at some point.

While Finns have a reputation for violence, firearms almost never enter the picture. Finland does have the highest murder rate in Western Europe, but those cases—commonly related to alcohol or domestic abuse—often involve knives rather than guns.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Kari Mokko of the Embassy of Finland, Washington D.C., Andrew Nestingen at the University of Washington, and Hanna Snellman at Lakehead University.

Michelle Tsai is a Beijing-based writer working on a book about Chinatowns on six continents. She blogs at ChinatownStories.com.