November 8, 2007 / 4:25 AM / 10 years ago

School shooting puts harsh focus on Finland gun policy

HELSINKI (Reuters) - Finland’s accommodating gun laws are likely to attract criticism after an 18-year-old gunman shot dead seven children and a school principal on Wednesday. The shooter turned the gun on himself and later died in hospital.

About 56 of every 100 Finns own a gun, according to a study by the Geneva-based Graduate Institute of International Studies this year, putting the rate of firearm ownership in Finland third after the United States and Yemen.

The government has said Finland’s low crime rate meant there was little need for harsher gun regulations.

But Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen said that perception might change after the student, who obtained a license for a .22 caliber handgun from a shooting club last month, opened fire on his fellow students in the south of Finland.

“Definitely this will impact opinions about handguns,” Vanhanen told a news conference after the shooting in the municipality of Tuusula.

He said the government would take up the issue later.

The European Union’s arms legislation forbids the sale of weapons to those under 18 except for hunting or target shooting.

Earlier this year, the EU proposed raising the legal age for all gun possession to 18, a measure that drew protests from Finland which said hunting was a popular leisure activity.

The proposal allows minors to use guns only if accompanied by a parent or guardian.

In 2006, there were 300,000 hunters among the 5.3 million inhabitants of Finland, the national statistics office said.

Some 38,000 were under the age of 20.

Anyone aged 15 and over can apply for a gun license with local police if they are able to offer a valid reason. The easiest way to obtain a license is by joining a shooting or hunting club, as the Jokela gunman did in October.

If underage, a Finn needs to have his or her legal guardian’s approval to apply. In addition all applicants are checked for a clean criminal record and whether they have any disability that could impact their gun use.

Violent incidents are rare at Finnish schools and metal detectors, common in the United States, are unheard of.

The massacre at Jokela High School could change all that, said Timo Myllyntaus, a history professor at Turku University.

“This is very brutal violence with no obvious reason and seemed to have been very carefully planned and might change the school and university life in this country,” he said.

“Finnish schools and universities are very peaceful compared to American ones.”

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