While having an unarmed police force may seem counterintuitive to citizens of many countries, there are in fact 18 nations and one US territory (US Virgin Islands) that maintain a police force of patrolling officers who do not carry firearms. The European countries of Norway, Ireland, Iceland, and most of the United Kingdom all maintain largely unarmed police forces, with correlating gun-homicide rates that are starkly lower than comparable countries with police forces who carry firearms. The statistics seem to support the philosophy maintained by these nations that arming the police with guns ultimately results in more violence, not less, and considerably more gun related homicides.
Three-quarters of the southern Pacific island nations, including New Zealand, operate unarmed police forces. Of the 16 Pacific island nations, 12 do not issue guns to officers, opting instead for a policing policy rooted in gaining and maintaining the respect, approval, and cooperation of the public rather than instilling fear under threat of force. Under this model, success is achieved not through high numbers of arrests, but rather is preventative with an emphasis on defusing tensions and focussing on the frequently underlying causes of crime such as poverty, addiction, and mental illness.
The United Kingdom
With a permanent population of more than 66 million, plus an additional 500,000 international students each academic year and a rotating tourist population of an additional 37 million, the United Kingdom is by far the country on this list with the largest population. As a political, social, and economic superpower, it is surprising to many that the UK continues to operate a largely unarmed police force. In fact, since the first formal policing forces of the 19th century, the British have operated under the policy that officers should be approachable as guardians of the citizenry, rather than the hunters of criminals. According to a 2004 survey, 82% of the police force reported they did not want to be armed while on duty, and even though they may have feared for their life while on patrol they remain opposed to carrying firearms. Subsequently there are markedly fewer incidences of fatal interaction between the police and suspected criminals in the UK than in any other G7 Nation.
With a population of 5 million people, directly comparing the number of fatal shootings by police in Norway to the United States population of 328 million does not provide a balanced analysis. For this, experts compare Norway’s four fatal police shootings since 2015 to American states with similar geographic size, population, and resource based economies such as Minnesota (61 fatal shootings) Mississippi (65 fatal shootings) Kentucky (97 fatal shootings) Louisiana (110 fatal shootings) and Colorado (198 fatal shootings). The Norweigian government maintains its low numbers of fatal shootings are not only the result of a mostly unarmed police force, but also extensive training for law enforcement where policing is considered an elite occupation. The force accepts less than 15% of the qualified candidates who apply each year. Once accepted, candidate officers are required to earn a three-year bachelor’s degree, a year of study in ethics and society, a fourth year of shadowing officers, and a final year completing an investigative research thesis.
It may be surprising to learn that although it is the 15th most armed country in the world, per capita, on this island nation, patrol officers never carry firearms. Instead, officers are equipped with pepper spray and extendable batons. Like many of Iceland’s citizens, nearly one third of which possess a shotgun or rifle, police are well trained in the use of firearms and can be issued one in regulated circumstances. Despite such a heavily armed population, crime is rare and firearms are used almost exclusively for hunting. It wasn’t until 2013 that a police officer shot and killed a suspect, marking the first - and only - time in the country’s history.
The only African nation on this list, Botswana is uncommon among its neighbors of South Africa, Namibia, and Zimbabwe, where patrol officers are regularly armed. Although all officers are licensed and issued a firearm, it is unusual for patrol officers to carry guns. Botswana has strict gun-control laws, and mirrors these in its patrol force. Officers do, however, carry expandable batons and pepper spray.
New Zealand recently made international headlines for implementation of new, strict gun control laws. Firearm limitations also stretch to the police force, where only the dog squad, airport, and Diplomatic Protection Squad routinely carry guns as part of the uniform. The rest of the force is trained in firearms, and patrol officers often carry AR-15 rifles stored in locked boxes in their vehicles, opting to conduct vehicle or foot patrol without a gun on their person.
Ireland is unique on this list, as only 20 to 25% of its force are qualified to use firearms. While detectives and specialized units are routinely issued a firearm, the rest of the force patrols without guns. It is worth noting that Ireland has one of the lowest crime and murder rates in the European Union.