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Could Finland Teach The U.S. A Lesson On Guns?


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. We'd like to begin the program today by talking about a story that might have gotten missed under the weight of all the other news this week and also, unfortunately, because of the sense that this kind of thing is becoming all too common. We are talking about another school shooting. There was another one in Troutdale, Oregon on Tuesday, where we understand that a 15-year-old high school freshman shot a 14-year-old fellow student, wounded a teacher and then killed himself. That shooting, like the shooting at the U.C.-Santa Barbara last month and others that have come so recently before those, is causing many people to ask if there is something about America's relationship with guns, the so-called gun culture, that's responsible for this. President Obama was one of the people asking that question. This is what he said after the shooting in Oregon.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We're the only developed country on earth where this happens. And it happens now once a week. And it's a one-day story. There's no place else like this.

MARTIN: We wanted to dig into that. We wanted to ask whether there is something unique about the U.S. and guns and gun violence and if there is something the U.S. can learn from other countries. So we've called upon Jukka Savolainen. He is associate professor of criminology at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. He's a former senior researcher at the Finnish Ministry of Justice. He's been studying this issue. He's with us from our bureau in New York. Professor, thanks so much for joining us.

JUKKA SAVOLAINEN: Thanks for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: Also joining us is Paul Barrett. He is a senior feature writer at Bloomberg Businessweek. He is author of "Glock: The Rise Of America's Gun." And he's been writing about gun use and gun violence for some years now and become a noted authority. Paul Barrett, welcome back to you as well.

PAUL BARRETT: Great to be here, Michel.

MARTIN: He's also with us in New York. So Professor Savolainen, I'm going to start with you. One of the reasons we called you is that you've studied crime and criminal behavior both in Finland and the U.S. And the U.S. and Finland both have a high number of guns per capita. In fact, you know, the U.S. is number one followed by Switzerland and then Finland. But the rate of gun violence is a lot lower in Finland, according to the World Health Organization. Could you give us a couple of reasons why you think that is?

SAVOLAINEN: Absolutely. And it's interesting you mention Switzerland there, too, along with Finland. And Switzerland, the high gun ownership, is kind of an artifact of their, one might call, quaint military system which requires households to hold onto military rifles as a method of national defense.

So but also in Finland most of the, the levels of gun ownership are indeed very similar in Finland and U.S. About 36, 35 percent of households have a firearm. But in Finland, as in Switzerland and many other countries and even some states in the U.S. like Minnesota, the firearms tend to be hunting rifles and moreover they tend to be located in hunting cabins or vacation homes, which are plentiful in Finland and Scandinavia. Whereas in the U.S., the prevalence of handguns, which I think is the subject of the book of my fellow - Paul here, there's a dramatic difference. Twenty-two percent of U.S. households have handguns compared to only 6 percent in Finland. And if you look at then the etiology of gun violence in the U.S., it is 80 percent handguns.

And so basically a simple answer is this, if you have an argument, dispute in a bar, or if you think about this recent incident in Florida, somebody's upset with loud rap music and so forth - and you have an altercation in Finland, it doesn't really play into this altercation to have a hunting rifle 100 miles away. That doesn't become active, so to speak, as an instrument of violence. But in a culture where you have handguns in your car, it's a different matter.

MARTIN: Paul Barrett, what do you think about that?

BARRETT: Everything Jukka just said sounds very sensible to me. And I think, you know, it's beyond dispute that the United States has a far higher rate of gun homicide than countries like Finland, Switzerland or for that matter, countries that may seem even more similar to the United States like Canada or Britain. Where, I mean, for example in Britain, the homicide rate per 100,000 is about 1. In this country, it's 4.6, 4.7, in that neighborhood. So clearly, that's a, you know, a significant multiple.

And I think it's correct to say that we have, you know, much more lethal violent crime in this country than in comparable countries. And I think it's a fair deduction, although not so easy to prove in a strict cause and effect sense, but certainly a fair deduction, that the prevalence of firearm ownership in this country, and in particular the prevalence of handgun ownership, both legal and illegal, contributes to that higher rate of lethality...

MARTIN: Well...

BARRETT: ...And I think those are all, sort of, basic facts that are, that are beyond dispute.

MARTIN: Well, also talking about Canada, for example - I mean, and Canada has high rate of gun ownership as well. But going to the broader question, you know, Paul, do you think there's something about the culture, the gun culture in this country, that is dispositive?

I just want to remember that - or is determinative of this. I mean, I'm thinking about the fact that the gentleman who became known in the 2008 election as Joe The Plumber - rather silly - 2000 election's Joe the plumber, who later went on to have kind of a career as a, you know, political candidate, tweeted that after the Santa Barbara shooting that, and it's crude and I apologize if this is hurtful to people but he tweeted, you know, (reading) your dead kid doesn't trump my constitutional rights.

I mean, one of the things that is unique about the United States is the second amendment. But other people make the point that there are other aspects of the second amendment that have been modified over the years about which people are not quite as Draconian as that, as that one. So could you talk a little bit about that? I mean, is there something about the culture, or the way Americans feel about their guns that is different?

BARRETT: The short answer is, yes. Obviously I think American gun culture is unique among this universe of comparable industrialized democracies that we tend to, you know to, the social scientists tend to look at as a group. I think the place to begin is where you mentioned with the Second Amendment, which is a very unusual provision to have in a Constitution and - which is more than a legally relevant provision, which it is because it restricts the degree to which government can regulate gun ownership in this country. But it also is a reflection of cultural attitudes.

The Second Amendment is not some strange concept bolted onto American culture. It is part of American culture. It has been there since the beginning and it reflects, in part, the special role and the symbolism that many Americans, not all Americans, but many attach to firearms. I mean, it is simply a function of our cultural history that since the founding of the country, some of our key images and our key ideas about what it means to be American, are attached to firearms, ranging from the Minuteman in the revolutionary era to the cowboys of the 19th century, to the film noir detective of the early 20th century, all the way up to the gangster rapper of modern times. Guns are part of that picture. So, yes, American culture is unusual, possibly even unique in that regard.

MARTIN: Well, we only have about four minutes left. And I wanted to hear from both of you on this question. You know, the president said the country needs to do some soul searching about gun policy and about our feelings about guns. And I just wonder what that might look like. I know, Professor, it's - Finland is such a different country. It's much less diverse than the United States. It doesn't have the history, for example, earlier gun control efforts in this country, in the early days, were directed at, you know, Native Americans and blacks to keep them from, you know, rising up against, you know, their oppressors, if you want to call it that. So is there anything - is there any evidence of - is there any history behind that change in attitudes about guns that you've been able to observe in your studies?

SAVOLAINEN: Well, that's those type of cultural facts are more difficult to study than percentages and so forth. But I guess I would address a little bit of the difference of Finland compared to the U.S. The U.S. definitely is very different from Finland but U.S. is also very different from the U.S. in that there's a lot of regional variation. Homicide rate in Louisiana is 10 per 100,000. Homicide rate in New Hampshire is less than it is in Finland. Homicide rate in Minnesota is equivalent to Finland. So maybe if they're soul-searching, there could be even searching within the country to see what's, what's producing this.

BARRETT: I think that is a vital, vital point. We live in a very big country with multiple cultures with varying attitudes towards violence, with varying attitudes toward how quickly one reaches for one's firearm, and with very different legal regimes. The laws here in New York City where we're sitting are very, very different from the laws in other big cities, Houston or New Orleans. And completely different from the regimes that exist in rural areas. So that's a very, if you had a uniform level of gun violence in this country, I think people might actually be much more alarmed by these horrible incidents. But a lot of people say, you know, that doesn't happen in my, in my area. My town is relatively safe.

MARTIN: So it's no - so what would that searching look like Paul Barrett? If there were, if this were to occur, is there any precedent for this happening in the United States? What would it look like?

BARRETT: I think the soul searching we ought to be engaging in right now is very focused and isn't about guns generally. But it's about this horrendous phenomenon that is now afoot in the land of the suicidal, murderous, just deeply disturbed young man, who clearly has a media-and-Internet infused template at the moment for what to do when they decide to destroy themselves, which is to go and get mom and dad's gun, go to a school or a shopping mall, shoot some other people and then kill themselves. And this is the phenomenon the president was talking about. And this is the phenomenon that's so deeply troubling to people, and I don't think actually gun control goes directly to addressing it. And I think we have to think about how we interrupt this process of the copycat 15- to 22-year-olds who are deciding to commit suicide by killing a bunch of people in a public space.

MARTIN: Clearly a very important topic and we just only scratched the surface. Thank you both so much for coming in to help us get started in thinking about this. Paul Barrett is senior feature writer at Bloomberg BusinessWeek and author of "Glock: The Rise Of America's Gun." Jukka Savolainen is an associate professor of criminology at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, formerly a senior researcher at the Finnish Ministry of Justice. They were both kind enough to join us from our bureau in New York. Thank you both so much.


BARRETT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.