The author of a new book on the bloody impact of guns across the world has called for tighter firearms regulation in Finland to stem the country’s comparatively high rate of gun deaths.
Iain Overton, director of policy for the UK charity Action on Armed Violence, visited some of the world’s most violent places during his previous career as a journalist, and while researching his book Gun Baby Gun.
In the book, Overton describes reporting from the Finnish town of Kauhajoki in 2008, after a 22-year-old gunman burst into a catering college and shot dead 9 of his classmates and his teacher before killing himself.
He says his impression in Finland at the time was that the killings sparked a debate that focused more on the psychological state of the killer than of the position of guns in Finnish society.
“I didn't even get a sense, not an inkling, that anyone in Finland wanted to have that debate over whether to legislate harder against handguns. The same in Norway after Anders Breivik shot a lot of people, the debate very briefly alighted on the issue of guns, and then quickly moved on,” Overton said.
No tangible reduction
Finland, which has one of the highest rates of gun ownership anywhere in the world, did go on to introduce stricter gun laws - and the number of new handgun permits was cut in half. But Overton says Finland still needs to face up to the fact that it has more gun deaths - especially suicides - per year than Scandinavia, Greece, or the UK.
“A number of years on you're still seeing a similar number of people shooting each other or shooting themselves. And actually looking at the figures I don’t think there’s a tangible massive reduction, post Kauhajoki, that sees a consequence of those laws being tightened up.”
Overton says he accepts that although the number of gun deaths remains high, levels of gun crime and police-related shootings are indeed lower than in many countries. He believes research should be carried out into why this is - and used to inform and influence other more violent countries, like the US and in South America.
Too many deaths
But he cautions against the view that Finland does not have a gun problem because so many of its guns are registered as for recreational hunting.
“To people who think that there’s no problem, I would say that the problem is 180 gun deaths per year. I think that’s too high,” he says. “And from a Finnish perspective, it could be hard to convince people raised with a hunting rifle in the house that tighter gun controls are needed. But a gun is far more lethal than a knife, for instance. It can turn a moment of crisis into a suicidal moment you can’t walk away from.”
Human rights concerns
Overton - now director of policy at a UK anti-violence charity - also calls for countries to take responsibility for the effects of their arms exports. His research showed that Finland sold half a billion dollars' worth of small arms and ammunition over the course of a decade - including to places with significant human rights concerns, such as China, Saudi Arabia, Kazakhstan and Israel.
“One of my fundamental conclusions was that the leading world exporters of guns - particularly the United States but including Finland as well - often distance themselves morally, ethically, bureaucratically, even logically, from the ultimate consequences that guns have.”
Overton said he was inspired to write the book while visiting the aftermath of a domestic shooting in Brazil. A husband had shot his wife dead, then fled the scene. The couple’s five year old son had lain at his dead mother’s feet the whole night long.
“Straight after that, I was taken to a gun repository by the police - a huge store of confiscated guns from all round the world. There were guns from Finland in there too. And each had been used in a shooting or in gang warfare. It struck me that the gun has a curious life cycle, and that people everywhere are affected by the gun’s ugly influence.”
Overton says he believes one way forward is for nations including Finland to look into introducing extra taxes on firearms sales and exports, with the revenue invested into reducing the harm caused by guns.