If Norwegians Had Guns When Breivik Showed Up, Then What?

If we imported American culture too, we would triple gun deaths.

Posted Jan 14, 2017

In 2011, Anders Breivik killed 69 people on the island of Utøya. Because the children and adults on the island were unarmed, Breivik was able to kill them without anyone stopping him.  

Many gun owners in the US claim that if Norwegians had carried guns, then Breivik could have been stopped. This could be true.  

Americans managed to kill the bad guys at a rate of about 250 a year. This number hides all the incidents where guns stopped violence altogether, so we can't infer from this number that guns aren't doing their job.  People who are being shot at can shoot back if they have guns, and it's not difficult to imagine that at least some of them would.

Our goal here is to imagine what it would be like if Norway had America's culture, in the widest possible sense, along with its complementary gun laws.

Guns are not prohibited in Norway, but their laws are stricter than in the US. But what if Norway had America's gun laws and culture to boot?

We can answer this. Let's assume Norway had the same liberal guns laws and gun culture that America has. It's important to imagine the culture because Norwegians have a generally less violent culture and probably would not feel the need to carry guns even if it were as easy as it is the US. As with all statistical investigations, this makes the interpretation open to question, as it should. We can't take numbers at face value, but nor can we make simple assumptions like being able to handguns to people who don't want them with the belief that they would carry them.  

Nearly 80% of Americans own guns. So all the Worker's Youth League attendants that Breivik came to kill could have carried a gun, and I'm confident they would have had a better chance of stopping him. Let's imagine that this would be impossible without importing the rest of America's firearm deaths. What would those deaths look like? Would they compensate for stopping Breivik?

First off, total gun related deaths in 2011 for Norway were 142. That's including Breivik, who single-handedly contributed 69 of those deaths. With Norway's population of about 5 million people, this is 2.87 gun deaths per 100,000 people.  

In the same year, the US had a death rate of 10.38 per 100,000, with a total of 32,351 gun related deaths.

Even in Norway's worst year for gun-related homicides, Americans managed to out do themselves in gun deaths. Taking on America's culture would have increased Norway's gun deaths by 3.62 times. 

Let's (incorrectly) assume that more guns would completely eliminate mass shootings and that a gun owner did stop Breivik in his tracks before he fired the first shot. Justice served. This would have meant only 73 gun deaths that year. This is about what Norwegians experience in the average year, both before and after Breivik. So far so good.

But American culture would have led to 191 additional gun deaths in Norway in the same year, bringing the total number to 264.  

To understand the validity of this estimate, it's useful to understand where these additional gun deaths come from.

Gun related suicides are the number one source of gun deaths in America. They push up the American death rate by a bit relative to Norway. Suicide by firearms is 4.62 times higher in the US than in Norway. If Norwegians did themselves in with guns at the same rate as Americans, they would not have had 69 suicides by gun in 2011 but 319.

This number is meaningless though because Norwegians are smart people and they could find other ingenious ways to kill themselves. And they do. The suicide rate by any method is still higher in the US. Per 100,000 it's 11.85 compared with Norway's 10.59. But notice this is only 1.26 additional gun deaths per 100,000. If we imagine these are down to the ease of shooting oneself with a gun, this is only 63 additional deaths.  

Now you can imagine this either way. Maybe the American suicide rate is a better reflection of what people really want, and the Norwegian one is impaired because Norwegians don't have guns. Maybe people who want to kill themselves should be allowed to and maybe they shouldn't have to go to a whole heap of trouble to do it.  Cultures could sell suicide kits at the pharmacy. Let's imagine for a second that a gun is a suicide kit, as well as a bunch of other things. It's a Swiss Army knife for problems of a life-and-death nature.  In this case, there are no additional deaths. And adding American culture to Norway still only leads to 73 deaths. 

Murder is a place where Americans are over-achievers. Even in 2011 with Breivik, Norway's gun homicide rate was 1.43 compared with the US's 3.59. In all years before and after Breivik, Norway's gun related homicides have stayed below 0.4.  In recent years they are even lower. In 2014 it was 0.10. American's gun homicide rate has declined too in recent years. It is now as low as 3.43. That's 34 times higher than in Norway.  

Why aren't more guns reducing the homicide rate? It could be because that's not how guns work. Guns may entice people into thinking they can do things they might not try without a gun. It may also offer opportunities for passionate disagreements to turn deadly, instead of just more passionate. However, this could be entirely wrong. The homicide rate in the US could be unavoidable because of America's cultural history and proximity to more violent neighbors. The US is ranked below many of its southern neighbors in terms of gun violence. So we can't imagine that taking guns away from Americans would necessarily reduce this rate in the same way that we can't imagine that giving guns to Norwegians would increase it. 

Norwegians are as clever as anyone, and if they want to kill someone they can figure it out. But in Norway's banner homicide year of 2011, homicide rate by any method was still lower in Norway (2.2) than the US (5.21). For years without Breivik, Norway's rate is between 0.6-0.8.  

If we let Norway's homicide rate equal America's homicide rate, then we have 152 additional deaths. Some of these probably aren't really due to culture, but to the ease of pulling a gun in a passionate disagreement. Still, if Norwegians didn't up their homicide rate, they just carried guns to stop Breivik, then they're still at 73 deaths.

Lastly, there are the accidental deaths. Americans are strangely good at this too. The unintentional death rate in America is between 5 to 10 times higher than in Norway, depending on the year. In 2011 there were 591 accidental gun deaths in the US, about twice what it was for killing bad guys. This is equivalent to about 10 accidental deaths in Norway, and 8 more than they otherwise would have had. I imagine many people would gladly pay this utilitarian price of additional accidental deaths to stop Breivik.  

Accidental gun deaths are a place where America's culture is unlikely to be completely responsible. It is also a place where many gun owners agree that America could do a better job. We could make sure those who have guns know how to use them safely.

In sum, even if Norwegian's had stopped Breivik, if they had America's culture to go along with it, they would have paid for it by killing themselves at a rate more than three times higher than they currently do. But some of those are suicides, which probably shouldn't count. And some are homicides, which probably wouldn't readily transfer to Norway either. If they did, it would only approximately double the death rate.

However, the reality might be far worse. American gun laws are some of the most liberal in the world, and America makes up for about 30% of the world's mass shootings, despite having only 5% of the world's population. Mass shootings often happen with legally acquired guns, as it did with Breivik. But Breivik, as he notes in his diaries, had to go to a lot of trouble to get his guns. It wasn't an idea he had one morning over cornflakes that he then implemented that afternoon. It shouldn't be that easy, and I'm sure most gun owners agree.

To think about importing gun laws to Norway requires us to seriously consider what that means and the kinds of culture that would lend people to want to own a gun. States with weaker gun laws and higher rates of gun ownership have more gun homicides. This makes it easy to say that increasing gun ownership appears to increase gun-related deaths.  But we need to be careful here, as it may very well be the violence that drives gun ownership, and not the other way around. I'd be happy to see the evidence either way. 

America has a rich tradition of gun ownership and for many reasons. Gun control may not be the answer. But it could be. It appears to have helped in Australia. But again, the culture's are different. America is an experiment unto itself. 

Thanks to Brother Hezekiah for suggesting this post. 

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Lankford, A. (2016). Public mass shooters and firearms: a cross-national study of 171 countries. Violence and victims, 31(2), 187-199.

Gun data is from GunPolicy.org.


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