Whereas most people in more central parts of Europe hardly have anything to do with firearms in their daily life, things are different in polar bear country and with 5000 arms for near 2500 people, Longyearbyen has a weapon density that is probably not far away from Texan standards. It is actually not directly required by law to carry a rifle when leaving the settlements as it is often ventilated by poorly informed media (or guides, unfortunately – click here for more about some commonly told arctic bullshit stories), but it is common practice and it is generally strongly advised to be properly equipped when venturing out into polar bear country.
Commercial weapon rental in Longyearbyen
Scientists, individual tourists and others who need, can rent weapons in Longyearbyen from authorised weapon dealers, of which there are two. There was the time when some kind of ID was enough to get a heavy-calibre firearm; but this has been history for years now: to rent a weapon from a commercial supplier, you need to have papers that you are legally entitled to have a weapon of the relevant kind or of a higher class, for example a European firearms pass or a hunting license. If you do not have any of these or equivalent, you can apply for permission from the Sysselmannen.
Borrowing weapons from persons or companies
Until recently it was, however, easy to borrow a weapon from a private person or, as an employee, from a company. The owner of the weapon “just” had to make sure that the borrower had the proper skills and knowledge and was character-wise able to have control over such a potentially lethal weapon. A simple form had to completed by the owner to provide evidence for legal borrowing for up to 4 weeks. But this is now history.
New Norwegian weapon law from 01 June
A new weapon law came into force in Norway including Spitsbergen on 01 June, replacing the previous one which was from 1961. One key change is this: The responsibility to check the borrower’s appropriateness to be given a weapon is not the owner’s anymore but now lies with appropriate authorities. That is the police in mainland Norway and the Sysselmannen (new designation from July: Sysselmester) in Spitsbergen (Svalbard), who provides further information on their official website.
This condition is considered met when the borrower can provide papers that entitle him or her to own a weapon of the kind in question or a higher-classed one (yes, there was a similar sentence higher up on this page already). This can, for example, be a Norwegian weapon card or a European firearm pass. The owner is obligated to check this before handing a weapon to the borrower. This is valid both for borrowing weapons between private persons, for example between members of one family – a common practice in Longyearbyen – and within companies, for example tour operators who supply their guides with rifles, also a very common practice in Spitsbergen.
Out and on tour in Spitsbergen: a rifle is usually not far away.
Applying for borrowing a weapon
If the borrower does not have proper certification, then the only way to legally borrow a weapon is applying for permission from the Sysselmannen, who will check the applicant’s general appropriateness (certificate of good conduct) and the relevant skills and knowledge (“tilstrekkelig våpendugleik”) to handle a weapon. According to the Sysselmannen, this can be done by providing evidence for having done military service, active membership in a shooting club or a safety course that includes weapon handling such as, for example, the courses usually provided by UNIS in Longyearbyen to their students and employees. The application costs 248 kroner (near 25 Euro). Click here to access an application form, applications by email are not accepted.
That’s the theory. In practice, questions remain open: do official documents such as a certificate of good conduct need (approved) translation and which documents exactly are accepted or not. I have sent a question catalogue to the Sysselmannen and provide updates here as more information becomes available.
Borrowing versus renting
Commercial weapon rental (Norwegian: utleie) is forbidden for private persons and most companies. Only authorised weapon dealers may offer weapons for rental on a commercial basis.
Deterrents remain compulsory
All this does not touch the legal requirement to carry an appropriate deterrent such as a signal pistol because polar bears are strictly protected and may not just be shot. Everything must be done to avoid dangerous encounters or, if it happens anyway, to avoid shooting a polar bear as long as human life is safe. Pepper spray is, however, not legally available in Norway including Spitsbergen. In certain situations, for example from the relative safety of a hut or even a tent, pepper spray could be helpful to scare a polar bear away efficiently and for good, thus potentially avoiding a situation where a bear might be shot.