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Why do we give guns to police officers?

In the United States, it seems obvious that police officers carry guns and are allowed to use them.

In other places, however, this would be considered a provocation and a violation of law.

In Britain, Ireland, Norway, Iceland and New Zealand, officers are unarmed when they are on patrol. Police are only equipped with firearms in special circumstances. It's a strategy that seems to work surprisingly well for these countries. Police officers there have saved lives — exactly because they were unable to shoot.

"The practice is rooted in tradition and the belief that arming the police with guns engenders more gun violence than it prevents," Guðmundur Oddsson, an assistant professor of sociology at Northern Michigan University, told The Washington Post.

As the U.S. grapples with its own debates over gun control and better policing, these five nations could teach some crucial lessons.

In Iceland, one third of all citizens are armed — but cops aren't

An Icelandic police vehicle drives along a road
Photo Credit: Getty Images / AFP

An Icelandic police vehicle drives along a road near the Eyjafjallajokull volcano as it continues to billow smoke and ash during an eruption late on April 17, 2010. When police shot a man in Iceland in 2013, it was the first time cops had used their firearms and killed a person in the history of this country, according to the Christian Science Monitor. Granted, Iceland is a tiny country with only 300,000 inhabitants.

However, one third of the country's population is armed with rifles and shotguns for hunting purposes, making it the 15th most armed country per capita in the world. Despite this, crime is extremely rare.

Are Icelanders simply more peaceful than Americans? "Iceland's low crime rates are rooted in the country's small, homogenous, egalitarian and tightly knit society," sociologist Oddsson said.

When asked what struck him most about crime in Iceland, Richard Wright, a criminology professor at Georgia State University, said: "Once, during a presentation, an Icelandic police officer kept referring to 'poor people with problems' — and it took me a while before I realized that she was talking about offenders. She considered every citizen precious because 'we are so few and there is so much to do,' she said."

Wright also thinks that the powerful standing of women in Iceland's politics, as well as within the police force, has helped to maintain low crime rates — something the U.S. should learn from. Both Oddsson and Wright agree that low inequality and a strong welfare system have also contributed to Iceland's success in sustaining its unarmed police.

Most of Ireland's officers are not even trained in using firearms

Irish Gardai form a police line behind a
Photo Credit: Getty Images / Carl De Souza

Irish Gardai form a police line behind a demonstrator holding an Irish flag during a protest in Dublin on the first day of the Queen Elizabeth II four day visit to Ireland on May 17, 2011. Ireland has gone a step further: There, most police officers would not even know how to use a gun if they were threatened. According to the U.N.-sponsored research site GunPolicy.org, only 20 to 25 percent of Irish police officers are qualified to use firearms. Despite that, Ireland has much lower crime rates than the United States.

In Britain, 82 percent of the police do not want to be armed

Police Officers walk around Parliament Square on February
Photo Credit: Getty Images / Dan Kitwood

Police Officers walk around Parliament Square on February 15, 2015 in London, England. "Sadly we know from the experience in America and other countries that having armed officers certainly does not mean, sadly, that police officers do not end up getting shot," Greater Manchester Chief Constable Sir Peter Fahy was quoted as saying by British media outlets in 2012, after two of his officers were shot dead.

The practice of walking unarmed patrols is an established fact of police life everywhere in the U.K. apart from Northern Ireland: Since the 19th century, British officers on patrol have considered themselves to be guardians of citizens, who should be easily approachable. There are far fewer incidents of deadly clashes between police and suspected criminals. While there were 461 "justifiable homicides" committed by U.S. police in 2013, according to the FBI's Uniform Crime Report, there was not a single one in the United Kingdom the same year.

In a 2004 survey, 82 percent of Britain's Police Federation members said that they did not want to be routinely armed on duty, according to the BBC. At least one third of British police officers have feared for their lives while being on duty, but remained opposed to carrying firearms.

In New Zealand, it's more dangerous to be a farmer than an unarmed cop

Police talk to residents along Methuen Road in
Photo Credit: Getty Images / Jason Oxenham

Police talk to residents along Methuen Road in New Windsor on March 24, 2014 in Auckland, New Zealand. In an essay, Auckland Technical University Senior Criminology Lecturer John Buttle calculated that it is in fact safer for police officers not to carry weapons. "[In New Zealand], it is more dangerous being a farmer than it is a police officer," he wrote in a paper, published 2010. Arming the police would inevitably lead to an arms race with criminals and a spike in casualties.

"Only a dozen or so senior police officers nationwide are rostered to wear a handgun on any given shift," Philip Alpers, Associate Professor at the Sydney School of Public Health, told The Washington Post.

Norway has stuck to the tradition — despite a shock in 2011

A Norwegian policeman stands at the cordoned off
Photo Credit: Getty Images / AFP

A Norwegian policeman stands at the cordoned off access to the site of an explosion near government buildings in Oslo on July 22, 2011. In 2011, Norway suffered through a tragedy that exposed the dangers of unarmed law enforcement authorities. Back then, far-right gunman Anders Behring Breivik attacked a Norwegian summer camp and killed 77 people.

Murders are extremely rare in this Scandinavian country — but many blamed a delayed and flawed police response for the horrifying carnage Breivik was able to inflict. So far, though, the tradition of unarmed police officers has proven to be stronger than the fear of terrorism.

There are other places, too.

Police officers with guns drawn run toward the
Photo Credit: Getty Images / Tim Sloan

Police officers with guns drawn run toward the court yard of the Pedestal Gardens Apartments where a barrage of gun fire was heard on the west side of Baltimore on June 1, 2007. Twelve out of 16 Pacific island nations, for instance, do not allow police officers to carry weapons, either. "Their regional bumper sticker now reads: An unarmed society is a polite society," says Alpers of the Sydney School of Public Health.

Most experts agree, however, that it would be counterproductive to suddenly disarm U.S. police officers without addressing the origins of crime. "Any attempts to roll back the militarization of the American police would need to be accompanied by policies that increase economic and racial equality and legitimate opportunity for advancement for the poor," sociologist Oddsson said.

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