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Finland defends gun availability

Nordic nation raising age to buy firearms in the wake of rampage

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HELSINKI, Finland — A teenage killer's deadly school rampage has put Finns on the defensive about their relationship to guns.

With 1.6 million firearms in private hands, the Nordic nation is an anomaly in Europe, lagging behind only the U.S. and Yemen in civilian gun ownership, studies show.

The government said Friday it would raise the minimum age for buying guns from 15 to 18 but insisted there was no need for sweeping changes to gun laws shaped by deep-rooted traditions of hunting in the sub-Arctic wilderness.

"If you look at the rate of homicides with firearms (in Finland), the figure is very low," Interior Ministry spokesman Ilkka Salmi said. "People using guns are hunters. They live in rural areas. It's part of the life over there."

According to a government study in 2002, 14 percent of homicides in Finland are gun-related. In the U.S., nearly 67 percent of murders reported to police in 2002 were committed with a firearm, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.

International gun-control activists have urged the Finns to rethink their laws in the wake of Wednesday's tragedy.

Finns are sensitive to their international image and often complain their country is portrayed as a gloomy northern outpost of Europe, where long dark winters drive people to binge drinking, suicide or random outbursts of violence.

Wednesday's bloodshed did little to help. Pekka-Eric Auvinen, described by police as a bullied 18-year-old outcast, opened fire at his high school in southern Finland. He killed six students, a school nurse and the principal before ending his own life with a gunshot to the head.

"There are all kinds of people living in Finland, like everywhere else," said Tero Aaltonen, a customer in a Helsinki gun shop. "But I rather think it's the influence of the media and all the things people are exposed to that might make someone do a thing like that."

Auvinen, who had no previous criminal record and belonged to a shooting club in central Helsinki, shot the victims with a .22-caliber pistol that he bought from a local gun store days before the attack.

Police revealed Friday that Auvinen had settled for the pistol after being denied a license for a 9 mm semiautomatic handgun.

"The application was rejected because a 9 mm gun is considered too powerful ... for target practice shooting," Detective Superintendent Tero Haapala told The Associated Press. "He was recommended to get a .22-caliber gun."

After Wednesday's shooting drew international attention to Finland's gun culture, the Interior Ministry issued a statement saying firearm sales were "strictly controlled."

Before granting a weapons permit, police "assess the applicant's suitability to posses a firearm, his or her way of life, behavior and possible mental health problems," the statement said. Applicants must prove also they have a legitimate need for a gun, such as hunting or target practice. Self-defense is not a valid reason.

Following the school shooting, police found Internet postings by Auvinen that seemed to predict the massacre.

Gun-control activists said the shooting at the Jokela High School in Tuusula, some 30 miles north of Helsinki, proved the need for stricter gun laws in Finland.

"Compared to other European countries, Finland has a serious gun problem," said Rebecca Peters, director of the London-based International Action Network on Small Arms.

Finland has some 650,000 licensed gun owners, about 13 percent of the population of 5.2 million, many of them hunters, the Interior Ministry said.

"Almost every Finnish family has a hunting gun at home," said William Wadstein, a gun shop owner in Helsinki. "We are used to seeing guns."

He added that Finnish children are brought up knowing that guns are not toys: "Guns are very, very dangerous things. They are used for hunting, not murdering."

Studies by the Geneva-based Small Arms Survey rank the country third in the world in civilian gun ownership. In Europe, only Switzerland comes close — and each member of Switzerland's militia army is allowed to keep his gun after completing military service.

Efforts to tighten gun control started some years ago, led by left-wing and pacifist groups. But the anti-gun lobby in Finland is weak, and the country has been known to defend its traditions of widespread gun ownership in the European Union.

Finland had previously insisted on keeping an age limit of 15 years for gun purchases in discussions with other EU nations about common rules on firearms.

But a government committee proposed changing the law Friday to prohibit minors from buying guns, although they would still be allowed to use them under parental supervision, the Interior Ministry said.

"It's obvious that this kind of tragic incident has probably sped up the decision," Salmi said.

He noted, however, that the change could not have prevented Wednesday's massacre: Auvinen was 18.