Finland has the highest rate of gunshot deaths in the EU, but claims that the country has a “firearm problem” are often dismissed. Do people who’ve come face to face with the effects of guns think more needs to be done? And how do you cope if a loved one dies in such a violent way?
“The first time you see it, it’s really shocking. It’s shocking every time for the first few years.”
Vesa*, an experienced police officer who’s served most of his long career in southern Finland, has been called to the gruesome aftermath of many a shooting.
“After some years, you have to start dealing with it using black humour,” Vesa admits. “You walk into the room and go, ‘Wow, there’s brains everywhere. Urgh!’”
Attending to firearm-related incidents is a regular part of police work in Finland, the country with the highest rate of gun deaths in the EU. For the officers faced with making sense of the consequences, a coping strategy is vital.
“In front of you is this horrible situation, but between each other we’re sarcastic, even cynical. You have to be. If you carry all the awful things you see with you your whole life, you just can’t handle it.”
One in every eight Finns is a legal firearm owner - the highest rate in the EU.
Plus there are the people making threats to shoot someone. “Especially when they’re drunk, people come up with all kinds of stuff, stupid ideas. They might be making a threat without even having a gun, but if we’re called out over a gun, it’s mostly that.”
It may seem strange that a sparsely populated country so often seen as a refuge of tranquility and peacefulness should feature so highly in international gun-ownership comparisons. With almost 1.6 million registered guns shared between 5.4 million people, one in every eight Finns is a legal firearm owner - the highest rate in the EU.
The high incidence is frequently put down to Finland’s deep-seated hunting culture, and the popularity of recreational shooting, bolstered by the fact that the vast majority of Finnish men become familiar with guns while serving at least six months in the army. Firearms are simply part of the traditional Finnish way of life, the argument goes, and in any case gun crime is not a major issue here.
But Finland is also the holder of a grizzly and unenviable record - the place in the EU where the highest proportion of people die every year in gun murders, shooting accidents and suicides involving a firearm. In 2013, the most recently recorded year, 177 people in Finland lost their lives in one of these ways, most often self-inflicted. The figure is in fact down significantly from five years previously, but in relation to the size of the population the rate still dwarfs that of other EU countries.
Is easy access to weapons to blame? Campaigners and public health researchers certainly argue that the presence of a gun in a bad situation quickly - and frequently - turns it into a deadly one.
It’s no secret that midsummer celebrations in Finland can be measured out each year by the tally of shootings, often fuelled by alcohol. During 2015’s holiday weekend, an elderly woman was found shot dead near her Jyväskylä home, another victim was hospitalised after being shot in the chest with a small-bore pistol after an argument, and two further men were shot and left with serious injuries by suspects who were later arrested for drink-driving.
Guns also feature in an even darker trend. In June 2012 in the village of Pomarkku, western Finland, a mother and her youngest child returned to their home. What they discovered were the bodies of the family’s five-year-old twin girls and three-year-old girl, all shot dead by their father, who had turned the pistol on himself.
The previous April another father had shot his two small children, his wife and then himself. In fact, in the year leading up to the Pomarkku massacre, one similar case of so-called “family murder” came to light every six weeks in Finland. Guns were the murder weapon in two out of eight family killings during the 12-month period.
Later that same year, two harrowing gun accidents within a single weekend in August, both in central Finland’s North Savo region, left communities reeling. On the Saturday morning, an 11-year-old boy was seriously injured and later died after a rifle went off accidentally during a hunting trip on a boat with his father.
Hours earlier, on Friday evening, an eight-year-old boy accidentally shot and killed his five-year-old brother with a firearm the children found at home. Police said a number of authorised guns were kept in the house, which was fitted with a lockable gun cabinet.
In 2007 Finland argued that tougher EU firearm laws would result in "highly emotional and strong reactions in Finland against the EU as a whole."
Despite the tragic roll-call of gun victims, attempts to further restrict guns in Finland are often resolutely opposed by an active hunting lobby. In September 2007, the country argued against an EU proposal to increase the minimum age for firearm ownership to 18, claiming that the impact on young people’s ability to go hunting would result in "highly emotional and strong reactions in Finland against the EU as a whole."
Most recently, Finland became one of only two EU countries opposing a directive that would ban semi-automatic weapons in the wake of November’s Paris attacks. Interior Minister Petteri Orpo argued that the ban would prevent Finnish army reservists using semi-automatic weapons in their training.
Is opposition to further gun controls a sign that Finland has trouble facing up to the impact its guns are having on society?
British journalist turned gun-control campaigner Iain Overton believes it is. He was one of the reporters who descended on the Finnish town of Kauhajoki in 2008, after a 22-year-old gunman burst into a catering college and shot dead nine of his classmates, his teacher and finally himself.
Overton says his impression at the time was that the killings sparked a debate that focused more on the psychological state of the killer than on 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.”
Although Finland did go on to tighten its controls around firearms - especially handguns - following the Kauhajoki shooting and a similar school massacre the year before, Overton warns against assuming that the problem has been addressed.
“To people who think that there’s no problem, I would say that the problem is almost 180 gun deaths per year. I think that’s too high,” he says.
“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.”
“When I got home, the car was gone”
Professor Kristian Wahlbeck, from the Finnish Association of Mental Health, has long argued that the availability of guns in Finland is a public health issue. Specifically because so many gun deaths are suicides - again, at a rate that is the highest in the EU, and around double that of Norway, Sweden and Denmark.
“It’s often boys and young men shooting themselves with their own or their father’s hunting rifle.” Wahlbeck explains.
The husband of Ritva* was not a young man. After decades of marriage, she said goodbye to him and left for work on one normal-seeming winter morning, and never saw him again.
“How can you sleep next to someone and not know that they’ve decided to end their life?” she asks.
“On that day I went to the cash machine in my lunch break and noticed there was a lot more money than normal in my account. That was strange. I wondered why my husband didn’t return my calls all afternoon. When I got home, the car was gone. I wasn’t worried at this point, but sort of restless. I logged into my online banking and saw that my husband had transferred 10,000 euros to me.”
As the evening went on, Ritva became more and more concerned. Her husband’s boss reported that he wasn’t at work that day. Eventually she contacted the police, who started searching.
“It was really awful weather, so dark. You couldn’t see anything outside. As I was pacing round the house I opened my husband’s work diary. On the latest entry it read, “I’m a stupid and thoughtless man.” The rifle used for hunting was not in its normal place.
Because of the poor visibility the police called off the search until tomorrow, a Tuesday. “When an officer arrived at my door next morning, he didn’t have to say anything. I just knew.”
“How can you sleep next to someone and not know they’ve decided to end their life?”
In her struggle to understand what drove her husband - whom she describes as able to talk about his feelings - to end his life in such a violent way, Ritva says she’s not convinced that more gun controls would have made an ultimate difference. “Perhaps he would have thought again if he’d had to go and collect the gun from a store at the police station, but I don’t know,” she says.
“The threshold for getting help in Finland is so low already. In this area you can see a psychiatrist without even booking an appointment. Help is so close by, so the problem can’t be a lack of resources.”
Instead Ritva says she is more certain than ever that suicide and mental health issues are a taboo subject in Finland, and that it would help address the problem if people felt they could address the topic more openly.
“Admitting you’ve got depression is seen as a sign of weakness and something shameful. Everyone asks me, ‘Didn’t you know that he was so badly depressed?’ He was perhaps quieter than usual, but how can you be so depressed that you decide to kill yourself, yet still outwardly behave normally, talk normally?”
Professor Kristian Wahlbeck specialises in suicide prevention, and points out that for most people suffering from mental health issues, there is no increased risk to owning a gun. But he says that identifying and predicting the people who are at risk is incredibly difficult, and therefore the best way to prevent gun suicides is to reduce the number of guns in society.
“A small but loud minority of gun hobbyists are strongly opposed to almost all gun restrictions. However from a public health point of view the proof of the effect that reducing guns would have is incontrovertible,” he says.
Wahlbeck points to studies which claim to demonstrate that storing a gun at home increases the risk of suicide, especially among young men.
“Easy access to guns and young people’s impulsiveness are a dangerous combination. Young people’s suicidal behaviour is normally linked to a certain time, and to a crisis. In these situations, buying some time and removing the tools for committing suicide from a young person’s reach reduce the risk of death.”
“Talking about what my husband did is a taboo, even though it happens so often”
The Finnish Association of Mental Health have been instrumental in pushing the government to draw up a suicide-reduction action plan, of which Wahlbeck says gun restrictions are likely to be a part. The government have pledged to address the issue, and a group inside the Ministry of Health is currently conducting a preliminary review.
Meanwhile Ritva says she’s been helped through the devastation wrought by her husband’s suicide in part by meeting others in a similar situation through the Surunauha support network, which has groups around the country.
“Talking about what my husband did is a taboo, even though it happens so often,” she says. “There’s a desire to cover up the way in which he died. But I try not to do that, I try to be honest and open. This time of year is always difficult, when the darkness comes in. But it doesn’t feel quite so distressing any more. I try to keep going.”
*Names have been changed
For help and support in English regarding suicide and mental health issues in Finland, contact the Finnish Association of Mental Health’s helpline on (09) 4135 0501.
CORRECTION: This article was amended on 25.1.2016 to make clear that out of the eight family murders during the 12-month period in 2011 and 2012, guns were the murder weapon in two cases, and not all of them, as the original text led to understand.